Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Are We Becoming a Nation of Day Laborers?

From college profs to the loading docks, we're seeing changes in the workplace

It happened this past Sunday. I was reminded once again by three different news articles of how our political and economic climate favors industry at the expense of the worker. There was a time when unions could see that a worker was justly compensated and given a pension to ensure that he was not just tossed aside when his productive years were over.  There was also a time when laws created safe work environments and protected workers against exploitation. Though those laws have some lingering benefit, there is a rising sentiment on the part of some that regulation is an infraction upon our liberty. Furthermore, industry is always figuring out loopholes and other ways to work around having to treat its workers with the dignity and worth that they deserve.

The first reminder was in the “In Depth” section of the Sunday edition of The Birmingham News. On page 19A there was an article by Alena Semuels that first appeared in The Los Angeles Times describing how workers are sacrificing more as employers push for “more efficiency.” The article gives an example of a worker whose full time job unloading trucks went to a temporary one, in which he does not know from week to week how many hours he will work. The company, I am sure saves money by not having to pay benefits that would go to a full time employee. The article further describes the growing workplace harshness that is being brought about as employers make sure that not a minute of time is wasted on the job. “Businesses are asking employees to work harder without providing the kinds of rewards, financial and psychological, that were once routine.”

After reading that article, I turned to the “Business” section. There on page 1C, above the fold, was the headline, “Belle Foods to reduce full-time workforce.” The local supermarket chain will be hiring 300 part-time workers “in effort to get ‘in line’ with industry standards.”  This trend has been happening for years in every sector as the drive has been to increase profits with each quarterly report. It should have been obvious throughout the first decade of this century as Wall Street profits steadily soared while personal wages remained stagnant.  In fact, many had to work two jobs just to maintain a living wage. All of that was before the economic crisis of 2008 in which thousands of jobs left and will probably not come back. Yet even in the economic downturn, Wall Street investments have continued to show profits.

Even in the non-profit sector, cost cutting measures are being taken that affect the frontline worker more than the executives.  Hospitals are using more part-time employees and schools are using more part-time faculty – which brings me to the third article that was posted by a friend on Facebook.  “The Ever-Shrinking Role of Tenured College Professors” is an article from The Atlantic  which outlines how universities have been decreasing the number of tenured faculty while hiring more adjunct professors. There again, the school can pay someone to teach a class without having to undergo the expense of providing benefits. The author of the article, Jordan Weissmann, closes with these words:

Why should you care? For one, it's damn tough making a living as a freelance professor (full disclosure: my mother was one for many years). The AAUP reports that the median pay for teaching a single course was $3,200 at a public research university, and just $2,250 at a community college. But more broadly, it's a reminder that rising college costs aren't necessarily paying for a better quality (or better compensated) faculty. Moreover, unless the burgeoning ed-tech industry finds ways to remake at least parts of college teaching, this chart shows us how schools will attempt to do more with less resources over time. It's not a particularly pretty picture. 
We live in an era in which too many workers feel that they should just shut up and be thankful for what they have.  Corporate leadership has us under their thumb. “We are the job creators,” they tell us, “and if you vote for anything that raises our taxes or cuts into our nice profits, we just might have to eliminate your job.”  All too often we are even too timid to speak of the common good, a great American democratic ideal which nowadays is spurned by many as sounding too much like “socialism.”  Yet we are seeing an ever-widening gap between the rich and everyone else. It is time we called upon that ideal of the common good.

Last fall I posted an essay which looked back to a surprising progressive advocate for the worker back in the 1950s. That progressive voice was coming from Bishop Fulton Sheen over the airwaves of the still new medium of television.  That essay was titled, “Economics as if People Mattered.” You can see that post here.  I am not sure what the way out of our current quagmire is, but I think that holding on to the common good, and doing business as if people mattered will need to be part of the equation.

A view of Wall Street


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