Tag Archives: Labor

‘A freeze is not a fix’

I confess to having little experience with unions, but judged from a distance the developments in the West Virginia teachers strike are quite new in the modern history of organized labor. The teachers have ground the state to a halt and have gotten even the state senate to scramble for ways to yield to their demands while saving face:

On Thursday, one week into the statewide public school employee strike, which will continue Friday with public schools in all 55 counties closed, the West Virginia Senate pumped the brakes on a bill that would give teachers, school service personnel and the State Police a 5 percent raise.

Instead, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, sent the legislation (House Bill 4145) to the Senate Finance Committee to change it and create a long-term revenue source for Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage.

tate school employee union leaders suggested Tuesday evening, when the 5 percent raise for school employees was proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, that workers return to schools Thursday. But with the strike now continuing two days beyond what the state union heads called for, it isn’t clear what effect the proposed alternative will have on ending the strike, and it isn’t clear if any end to the strike will be unified statewide.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to meet Friday afternoon.

Growing up in the aftermath of the 1981 PATCO strikes induced me to accept Ronald Reagan’s assertion, borrowed from idol Calvin Coolidge (who made his reputation when as governor of Massachusetts he fired striking cops), that public union employees couldn’t walk out of their jobs. To fuming parents who argue that their children’s educations are endangered, I respond: teachers who live paycheck to paycheck and face the possibility of deducting three hundred dollars from a $1300 biweekly check for health insurance can’t concentrate on the basic duties of education.

As far as I know, no Democrats with national profiles have breathed a word of support.

The decline of labor unions

Rich Yeselson kicks off a four-part series commissioned by Talking Points Memo on the history of labor. The key paragraph, which should have been the introduction:

With the brief exception of the late 1930s followed by the anomalous period of the Second World War, labor has never had a juridical and statist presumption that it should institutionally survive, let alone flourish. For much of its history the courts, and to this very day, have sought to diminish labor’s power, if not crush it outright. With the exception of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (which opponents immediately sought to undermine), there has never been a statist framework in the US that explicitly sought to ensure labor’s institutional viability across the branches of the federal government and state governments. And without that statist presumption, unions had to confront what historian Nelson Lichtenstein has labeled a special form of “American exceptionalism”: “the hostility managers have shown toward both the regulatory state and virtually all forms of worker representation.” Lichtenstein goes onto note that the absence in the U.S. of “self regulation or cartelization” found in Europe and parts of Asia. Decentralized “competitive disorder” made non-rationalized wage and benefit increases imposed by firm-by-firm unionization (rather than the sectorial model of collective bargaining found in Europe in which the extra cost burdens of unionization was socialized across economic sectors) a great threat to companies and triggered a particularly vicious, sometimes violent, response. Thus when, via the decline in manufacturing and a corresponding loss of political influence, unions weakened in the 1970s, the business class seized that moment and, by the construction of politically and intellectually influential think tanks and a massive increase in their congressional lobbying, counter-mobilized to crush them.

I’d add that the sixties New Left, suspicious of machine politics, discredited the likes of Hubert Humphrey, et al. The rise of gay rights, feminism, opposition to the war in Vietnam contributed. A complicated story. I wish the series well.

‘Unions are inherently conservative institutions’

Published last Labor Day, this Jonathan Cohn piece about unions remains scintillating (h/t Digby):

Pretty much in every other country in Western Europe, Canada, even Australia and the U.K. (which share some labor-management features with the U.S.), the assumption is that unions are basic ingredient of liberal capitalism. Among conservatives and business owners in those countries, you’ll hear a lot about how they are inefficient, too powerful, or just pains in the ass. But pretty much everybody accepts them as a normal part of the political/economic/legal landscape. That’s simply not the case here.

What’s ironic about that is that unions are inherently conservative institutions, which historically developed parallel with the development of capitalism itself. They are as much a part of capitalism as Henry Ford or Apple. Unions use contracts—and there’s nothing more intrinsic to capitalism than the right of contract—to link their members to the fortunes of the companies they contract with. They are capable of having huge fights with capital (as in the thirties)—which raise the hopes of leftists—but, usually, over the attainment of very incremental ends—which disappoint leftists. Marx had nothing but contempt for British trade unionists, and Trotsky saw no value in unions at all. Yet conservatives and most libertarians hate them. Weird.

Growing up in a landscape in which Reagan’s firing of air traffic controllers (which coincided with the Carter administration’s interest in deregulation) set the tone for the next two decades of rollbacks, I don’t have the historic attachment to unions that I should as a liberal. Living in a what is hilariously called a right to work state like Florida doesn’t help either. And I suspect their moment has passed. Cohn: “Nobody has figured out how to link an organizing strategy that would target large sections of the economy still immune to globalization (transportation, retail, healthcare, hospitality, food services) with the necessary militancy of millions of workers that would be required to defeat the overwhelming conservative economic, political, legal, and cultural forces that would be arrayed against the union campaign.”

(Cohn’s article, by the way, offers intelligent responses to indignant relatives on Facebook walls).


If true, this is big news: the Department of Labor may propose a rule that will increase the percentage of the workforce eligible for overtime. The rate, set at $23,660, will double to $52,000. Policy Mic quotes EPI’s example: <blockquote[A]n assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant with a salary of $24,000 and who spends 95% of his (or her) time cooking fries, running a cash register and sweeping floors can be required to work 60 or 70 hours a week and yet be denied any overtime pay, simply because he's classified as a manager. On the weeks he works more than 64 hours, his effective hourly wage is below the federal minimum wage of $7.25; workers who are exempt from overtime regulations are also exempt from minimum-wage regulations.

As the expectations for white collar labor have grown in the last thirty years, coinciding with the collapse of organized labor and the rise in outsourcing (no, it can’t be a coincidence), so have loopholes like comp time.

Past exemptions for white-collar workers earlier were predicated on the idea that many of them naturally have stronger bargaining power and flexibility in how many hours they work. While that made some degree of sense in an earlier era, today’s economy includes many low-paid knowledge workers and service workers whose responsibilities can have managerial or administrative aspects but which by no means guarantee them autonomy in their workplace.

During my retail days, I saw the abuse of managers often, and not ill-intentioned either. A manager would stay past his appointed shift; if it was more than a hour, he was expected to come in an hour later his next shift or swallow it. I suspect this practice will continue – one of the perks of management should be to work without clockwatchers timing movements – but at least they’re on notice should the president sign this thing.

Best: Labor can make the decision without Congress.

The myth of the 80-hour workweek death march

I see a lot of this, er, activity ’round these parts, and administrators think they can stay productive as long as they want too:

If you work more time than your comfortable maximum and keep doing it, your productivity will drop and keep dropping. Quite rapidly, you will become less productive than you would be if you worked 40 hours. Working 80 hours a week for a year might feel productive, but you’ll be getting less done than if you worked 30.

(This is probably a good reason not to buy shares in the computer games industry.)

So what’s a death march good for?

A death march lets you steal time.

You can’t work 80 hours for the next three months and double your productivity.

But you can work 80 hours a week for the next three weeks and double what you get done – provided you’re willing to accept that in the three weeks after that, your output will be functionally identical to that of a lightly-reheated blancmange.

If you have a deadline three weeks and a day away, that’s sometimes a good trade.

I suppose if you work in Wall Street and can retire with several million dollars at forty the eighty-hour week is worth the ravages.