Editorial: Stuck with capitalism, we must make it fair
The sudden closure of workplaces due to COVID-19 early last year cost more than 33 million people their work over a seven week period. Governments have rushed to try to help, in part by funneling money to keep countless households afloat, but the damage has been severe, especially for non-white workers and those already in the city. lower end of the income spectrum. Even now, as jobs return, the pain continues for people with higher personal debts, deferred rent payments, and other financial problems.
Sadly, this financial crisis was the second time in just over a decade that millions of people have been made redundant. These economic shocks have highlighted how precarious some jobs can be, especially in a consumer-driven economy. Yet, for better or for worse, we are stuck with our capitalist system. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to do it work more fairly for everyone, especially the most vulnerable layoffs and financial hardship.
As the gap in income equality has widened over the past decades – and put the brakes on social mobility – it has become imperative that we find ways to shore up the fortunes of those who benefit least, or only sporadically, from our economic system. Notably, the people who lose their jobs during a recession are often the same people who do not fully share the wealth generated during the recoveries. Jobs, careers and the ability to accumulate wealth are part of a complicated set of relationships weighted by class, race, gender, geographic regions, education levels and access to capital.
This is no coincidence that income inequality has worsened as the number of changing federal protections, the spread of “Right to work” laws in the South and Midwest, concerted anti-union efforts by employers, and the economy’s transition from manufacturing to services. California is a relatively strong labor state with protections for collective bargaining and other workers’ rights raising federal standards during the Depression era National Labor Relations Act, yet union membership here, driven by the public sector, is still about 15% of the workforce – above the national average of around 10% but well below the peak of 70 years ago. when about a third nationwide non-farm labor was unionized. Again two thirds of workers support unions.
We can do more to strengthen collective bargaining and reinvent the role played by unions, who have historically been a democratizing force for workers and a counterweight to the cultural deification of CEOs. Our union system is company-based – unions organize workers for a specific company. In Europe, negotiation is often done by sector, so that unions are able to negotiate the basic contractual conditions in an industry, a comprehensive approach.
Federal law recognizes the right of workers to organize unions, but laws and regulations governing how this is done stack up in favor of companies. Employees active in organizing campaigns are often fired or fired for pretext reasons, and then find themselves with an often lengthy legal battle to right the wrong. Fear of being fired is a palpable thing, and an obstacle in trying to persuade workers to come together to fight for their own interests. The need for strong unions is more pronounced in workplaces where work abuse is more common and retaliation more likely. We need much stronger protections and faster decisions – with real penalties for employers – for workers trying to exercise their right to collective bargaining.
But unions are also facing cultural headwinds. Relatively few people understand the history of work and its role in shaping the contours of working life, even for non-union workers, including the standards of an eight-hour day and a two-weekend weekend. days. Strengthening this knowledge could help improve the image of trade unions.
Many unions have also largely aligned themselves with liberal political positions beyond labor issues, putting them at odds with much of their membership. Many have also become mini-bureaucracies tasked with negotiating contracts and enforcing rules (with their own internal battles) who may lose sight of the fundamental role of empowering workers themselves. Unions need to do a better job of defending their own (meaningful) relevance.
There are ways to improve union support. Under the Ghent System (named after the Belgian town where he started) unions provide some government-related work-related services, such as processing unemployment claims and benefits, which gives unions a source of income as entrepreneurs while at the same time improving their image among workers. A related concept: economic democracy, expanding business and workplace decision-making to include workers and communities with seats for workers on boards of directors. And union profit-sharing.
Beyond strengthening unionization, our economic system must better respond to the needs of workers who lose their jobs and seek new ones. Before the pandemic hit, the economy had reached what economists call “full employment,” but that’s a misnomer for the slack in the labor market needed to keep wage growth from overheating. By definition, “full employment” means 5 to 6 million unemployed people at any given time, a number which does not include those who are underemployed. It also does not measure those who work for poverty wages.
It is clear that we must explore better approaches, including the revival of New Deal-style government employment programs to provide employment for those working part-time due to lack of full-time opportunities and those whose jobs have completely disappeared, while also providing a link continuous with working life for those who face fixed-term unemployment or who have simply given up looking.
Another model: Many states – including California – have adopted “work-sharing” programs based on the European initiatives in which the government guarantees temporary wage losses resulting from short-term reductions in paid working hours. This allows businesses to reduce labor costs during a recession without the trauma of laying off workers, putting the business in semi-hibernation until things pick up. It’s a good cushion for workers as well as employers, who are then in a better position to deal with downturns without the expense associated with severance packages and the hiring and eventual training of new workers. (Disclosure: The Times used the California work-sharing program to avoid layoffs of employees represented by NewsGuild from mid-May 2020 to the end of July).
Of course, not all layoffs are temporary. What happens when a layoff becomes permanent – when there is no more job to return to? In a robust economic sector, lateral movements are possible. But when an entire industry collapses, workers need help making the transition to new careers, a problem the country has faced – often unsuccessfully – in previous recessions that saw the collapse of markets. steel and automotive industries.
We are seeing something similar happening now in the retail industry as more customers shop online, and in the oil and gas industry as future demand for fossil fuels decreases and the market for fossil fuels decreases. need for renewable energy sources will increase. Retail salespeople and oil rig workers tend not to have the skills to get started, for example, in building solar or wind farms, a rapidly growing sector of the economy. So we need a flexible and reliable system to help workers transition to another area of work, such as a training and learning programs.
Many jobs and careers are fluid. The median time workers spent with their current employer before the pandemic was 4.6 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but this varied considerably by age. For workers aged 55 to 64, the median tenure was 10.1 years; for workers aged 25 to 34, the median was 2.8 years. Union contracts tend to protect the seniority of long-tenured workers during layoffs, leaving workers who have less seniority and who are often younger, at greater risk of being made redundant. Young workers have more time to recover financially from a job loss, even if they risk derailing their career path. Older laid-off workers often struggle to land a comparable new job at a time in their life when they should be maximizing their earnings and saving for retirement. We need to find ways to both keep young workers on an upward trajectory and help older workers stay in the workforce, while strengthening retirement income options for all.
Will we be willing to make these and other changes? To create a safety net that is more favorable to workers and businesses, for more flexibility in when and where the work is done? The pandemic and the resulting economic upheaval were disastrous, but also illuminating. As a society, we should take this opportunity to improve the way we do things and put our own silver lining on this particular dark cloud.