|Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
Studies indicate that those with college educations are more likely to have jobs and earn more money in those jobs than those who lack a degree. Similarly, union workers tend to earn more than workers in similar jobs who lack union contracts. Yet the majority of jobs lost over the past few years were in the middle range of wages, while most of those added during the recovery have been at the lower end of the income range, according to a new report from the National Employment Law Project, suggesting that neither degrees nor unions provide the same security they did a generation ago.
The report examined 366 different jobs covered by the Labor Department, dividing them into three groups based on average wages. The middle group, which included jobs in manufacturing, construction and information, with wages ranging from $13.84 to $21.13 per hour, accounted for 60% of the job losses between 2008 and 2010, the New York Times reported. These same fields made up only 22% of the job growth, and higher-wage jobs, with wages ranging from $21.14 to $54.55 per hour, made up only 20% of the job growth. The bulk of the job growth during the recovery (58%) has been in the lowest wage occupations (e.g., retail sales and food preparation), with hourly wages ranging from $7.69 to $13.83.
Since 2001, lower-wage job growth has been 8.7%, while mid-wage jobs have declined by 7.3%. According to Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, worker productivity in the U.S. has risen by 80% over the past 40 years, while wages have declined by 11%. This has been a boon to the bosses, who have been able to extract even greater profits from their workers. Greater productivity means more widgets per hour per employee. This would benefit capitalists even without cutting wages. However, they have also downsized, getting fewer employees to produce the same or more widgets, without raising wages, resulting in a downward spiral of both working and living conditions for the majority of American workers.
Over the past 40 years, union membership has declined by 50%. This is part of the problem. Union workers do tend to earn more than their nonunionized counterparts, while regions with high union membership also tend to have higher wages for other workers in the area, even the nonunionized workers. Rising health care costs have taken a cut out of workers’ compensation packages (at least from those who are lucky enough to get health benefits). Outsourcing is another cause of both declining union membership and wages, as workers find themselves accepting lower wages just to keep a local job.
Yet it is not accurate to blame these problems entirely on the capitalist class, though its members are certainly the driving force and sole beneficiaries. The mainstream union leadership has all but given up unions’ two main sources of power—organizing and striking—in exchange for the safer, easier and more comfortable tactics of lobbying and hobnobbing with the bosses and politicians, thus hastening the demise of unions and losses for workers.
The unions have also taken the strategically stupid tactic of valuing job protection/creation over compensation and working conditions, thus contributing to the downward spiral of wages. This was perhaps best exemplified by their Detroit compromise/sellout, in which the UAW accepted a two-tiered wage and benefits package giving new workers salaries that were half what autoworkers had traditionally been earning, all in exchange for an agreement by autoworkers to lay off fewer workers.
While being jobless certainly sucks, having a job that kills or injures or keeps one living in poverty is not much better. Unfortunately, most Americans accept that jobs are the only solution to the problem of feeding and housing ourselves. Thus, when Romney or Obama promise more jobs, people cheer, ignoring the quality of job, whether it is low wage, high stress, degrading to the soul or the environment.
Yet if worker productivity has really increased by 80%, then why not let the workers work 80% less for the same wages or increase their wages by 80%, thus lower the wealth gap or the number of unemployed workers? Certainly not a revolutionary idea (the bosses would still own the means of production and the employees would still be at the mercy of the bosses to keep them on the job and pay them), but one that would be justifiable considering they are the ones whose productivity has increased.
This kind of thinking is alien to both the bosses of the workplaces and the unions. Workers are seen by bosses as a means to an end: pay them $5 for a product or service that can be sold for $20 and pocket the profits. Increased productivity means only one thing to them: they get to pocket even more of the profits.
Bosses and employees truly have no common ground. The bosses have the power to hire and fire, set wages and working conditions, speed up, layoff, shut down and outsource. Employees are dependent on bosses, both to offer jobs in the first place and to pay wages, since the only thing they have to sell is their time and their bodies and minds, and this is the only way they have to put food on the table. So if the boss wants to keep all of the rewards of increased worker productivity, the workers can either accept it and hopefully keep their jobs and current income, or risk being replaced by striking for more.
The union bosses actually have interests more in line with the workplace bosses. Laid off workers do not pay dues, thus cutting into the pool available for the wages and benefits of the union leaders. A strike is risky for the union bosses, not only because the pool of dues paying members could decline, but because the union itself could be cut out of the picture. If they lose the right to collectively bargain, the union leaders could end up unemployed themselves. Thus, protecting jobs and collective bargaining (through lobbying and campaign contributions) become far more important than protecting working conditions and compensation for the workers (through organizing and job actions). The former keeps the union leaders materially comfortable, while the latter is just a lot of work and risk for someone else’s benefit.