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Author Archives: Martha Crowley

dollarIn early June, it came to light that last October, Walt Disney World Orlando eliminated the jobs of 250 data systems employees. The move made national news not because so many workers became jobless, but because Disney offered a severance bonus to employees who remained with the firm long enough to train the young immigrant workers who would assume their tasks.

The heartlessness of this move left workers and consumers reeling. A former Disney employee told a reporter for the New York Times, “It was so humiliating to train someone else to take over your job. I still can’t grasp it.” Outrage spread across news and social media, fueled by dismay that a company so closely associated with wholesome family entertainment would betray its workers in this way.

Many observers lamented loopholes in the H-1B visa program used to secure the replacement workers’ entry to the US, and endorsed reforms that would reduce impacts on American workers. Relatively few seem to grasp that Disney’s moves are rooted not in policy loopholes or corporate malfeasance, but instead are part and parcel of capitalism. Outsourcing, layoffs and swiftly severed ties – this is what capitalism looks like. As Karl Marx pointed out in his Manifesto of the Communist Party, workers, who under capitalism “must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.” The “increasing improvement” of production methods “ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious.” Manual workers confronted this reality decades ago, as plants in the United States closed and production moved overseas to take advantage of lower-cost labor. Increasingly, professional workers are also feeling the pain of displacement. And there is only more to come.

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AAgradorangeRising productivity, profitability and stock prices have long been heralded as signs of economic recovery from the Great Recession.  Many segments of the population, however, have yet to experience any relief.  Initially concentrated among the upper classes, gains in employment, income and wealth have gradually spread to middle America, but many groups, including race/ethnic minorities and young people have been left behind.

Young people suffered a disproportionate share of job losses in the recession, and current trends suggest that they will be among the last to share in the benefits of economic recovery.  Although a college degree offers some protections in a competitive labor market, it is not uncommon for recent college graduates (males somewhat more than females) to struggle with unemployment for many months following graduation.  Many who do find jobs are underemployed – working fewer hours than they would like or in jobs for which they are overqualified

With an unemployment rate roughly double that of their white counterparts, young African American college graduates have even greater difficulty securing employment.  The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that in 2013, 12.4 percent of African American college graduates age 22-27 were unemployed, compared to 5.6 of all college graduates in this age group, and more than half of those who had jobs were underemployed.  Those with degrees in the highly sought-after STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fared little better, with unemployment and underemployment rates of 10 percent and 32 percent respectively.

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A new study published by researchers at North Carolina State University tackles the challenge of shopping for, preparing and sharing healthful family meals.  In “The Joy of Cooking?,” Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott and Joslyn Brenton describe women in particular as struggling to enact cultural ideals associated with home-cooked meals.  Expensive ingredients, time pressures and picky eaters seem to conspire against them, with poor, working-class and middle-class mothers all feeling the pinch.

The study’s findings were hotly debated in recent weeks, with coverage and commentary in outlets such as Slate, PBS and The New York Times focusing almost exclusively on values and priorities.  Some praised the study for questioning the idealization of burdensome family dinners.  Others called for increased commitment to home-cooked family meals, citing the rewards of time spent together and noting how easy and rewarding meal preparation can be.

Because the debate’s participants have primarily viewed the issues through lenses of family and food rather than work, very little of the debate has broached the root causes of families’ mealtime struggles:  deteriorating employment opportunities, stagnant wages, and changing expectations of workers. Read More

ticking clocksAnyone who has worked a nonstandard, part-time job is familiar with the issues: uncertain hours, fluctuating pay and last-minute change. Add to that a more recent scheduling innovation increasingly common in retail work: on-call hours that require workers to set aside time they may be required to work, with no compensation for that time and no guarantee of hours or pay.

Variable schedules are particularly challenging for parents, who can find it difficult to arrange childcare, attend school events, and even maintain morning and bedtime routines. Fluctuating schedules can interfere with ability to attend school or hold down an additional job. Because pay varies with hours, workers may also have difficulty making ends meet.

In response to demands of women’s and labor groups, government officials are increasingly enacting or proposing legislation aiming to curtail practices that present the greatest challenges to employees. Many workers have gained the right to request predictable schedules (although laws currently do not require employers to honor their requests). Other proposals call for work schedules posted two weeks in advance, compensation for on-call status, and extra pay if workers are called in with less than 24-hours notice or are sent home after just a few hours of work.

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WEB+GM+logo+and+ignition+switchIn recent months, General Motors has received scathing critique for its handling of a design flaw affecting multiple Chevrolet, Pontiac and Saturn models produced over several years.  At issue is a faulty ignition switch that, if jostled, cuts power to the engine, deactivating airbags and other features of affected vehicles.  The problem was brought to light by Florida engineer Mark Hood, who discovered that newer ignitions with the same part number differed from the original design and required significantly more force to turn.

Subsequent investigation has determined that G.M. approved a new ignition switch design in 2006 and quietly implemented it without recalling vehicles subject to ignition failure.  Inquiries by a federal agency, Congress and the media have revealed that G.M. has been aware of problems with the switch design for more than a decade but hid them from outsiders.  The company now admits it has known about the problem since 2001, has acknowledged at least thirteen deaths related to the flaw, and has recalled millions of vehicles.

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It’s an old question, really, but an important one — are managerial practices and work design responsible for the behavior of employees? Or does worker engagement and behavior come down to individual personalities, with responsibility thus resting primarily with workers? And what are the impacts on a firm’s financial success?

These questions received newfound attention with the publication of a study conducted by the Gallup organization, based on deceptively interesting survey data. Interesting, because they mirror critical concepts we sociologists of work use in our research. Deceptive, because the report stands as a textbook example of the kind of shallow reasoning that results when analysts proceed without concepts such as power, organizational design, and the normative climate fostered by management.

The report, titled “State of the American Workplace:  Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders ” uses data collected from individuals and their employers to show that a variety of factors that Gallup terms “employee engagement” enhance productivity, profitability and customer ratings while reducing accidents, theft, absenteeism, turnover and defects.

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