Saturday, February 28, 2009

Times Are Tough

It is hard to believe how things have crumbled so quickly: The economy, housing, banking, employment, the stock market, consumer confidence, and the list goes on. The fact that the GDP recently sunk 6.2% indicates that this current downturn may be more severe than most were anticipating. In downturns like this it is those individuals at the margins, the poor, the sick, those without adequate job skills or training, that are the most affected. When I hear bankers who receive government help complaining about their salary being capped at $500,000 I can't help but cringle. The people are increasingly being asked to support the poor business practices of these banks and other industries that were paying exhorbitant amounts for sub-par performance. These excesses were cheered by many during better times as proof of America's superiority. When CEOs are making 400 times the amount earned by the lowest paid workers in their company something is extremely wrong. For the last twenty to thirty years both the share of wages and actual wages have become increasingly concentrated at the very top.

This concentration of wages and wealth has led to an increasingly untenable situation. The rise of underemployment and poor quality work laid the groundwork for the current depth and breadth of the current downturn. After peaking at nearly 30% in 1979, the unionization rate of the U.S. has steadily fallen by half to less than 15%. While the U.S. has always had among the lowest unionization rates, the steady decline has been coupled with an increase of part-time and full-time work without benefits or worker protections. Combined with a culture that pushes consumption over conscience, it is not difficult to imagine how so many Americans were in a precarious situation even before the downturn. Even as the downturn was in its earliest stages, many dual-earner families were increasingly having to add additional part-time work to cover the increased costs of gasoline and other consumer goods. Others were taking part-time jobs in fear that their main source of income may not be as reliable as they had believed. 

Americans must come to see that working together in solidarity and demanding adequate treatment as workers only serves to strengthen our position, not weaken it. The pittance that is paid in union dues serves not only to increase your power over your work, but increases the standards across whatever industry you are a part of. The greatest gains of non-unionized workers in the twentieth century have been as a result not of employer benevolence, but as a result of workers organizing in other places, but in the same industry. The employers knew that once these non-unionized workers saw the disparities, they would also begin to organize. This led many companies to improve their conditions if only to delay unionization at their own plants.

While unionization is only one piece of the larger picture, it remains one of the best tools workers have to increase the accountability of companies to workers and to society more broadly. The fact that the car companies are blaming their union contracts for their economic woes only shows how inadequate their business model had become, all while paying their CEOs and other top-level managers ridiculously high wages. Luckily, Obama is much more aware of the value of labor than most presidents in recent memory. Giving American workers a say in their workplaces can only improve the economy, their work, and, most importantly, their lives. 

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