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Unite Here rally for BWI workers in Annapolis, MD. Image: United Workers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Unite Here rally for BWI workers in Annapolis, MD. Image: United Workers via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

by Barry Eidlin

In the 2016 presidential race, candidates from both major parties are looking for ways to address inequality.

Partly, they must do so because seven years after the 2008 crash, many Americans still aren’t getting ahead, according to several analyses by the Economic Policy Institute think tank. In fact, that’s nothing new. Factoring in inflation, wage growth has stagnated for the bottom 90% of Americans since 1979.

In the campaign ahead, these struggling Americans will be called many things: “forgotten,” “hardworking,” “ordinary,” “everyday,” and of course, “middle class.”

What they will not be called is “working class.” To the extent that anyone refers to the “working class,” it will be as a not-so-coded reference to white, male, blue-collar workers, even though the term can apply to people of both genders, and any race, in many different sorts of work.

This failure to talk about class obscures one of the primary drivers of the growth in income inequality: the decline of labor unions. Research I’ve been conducting on the intersection of political sociology, inequality and social policy suggests that union decline is linked to a political process that has pushed class issues off the table in the US – unlike Canada, where the income gap hasn’t widened nearly as much.

If the current crop of US presidential candidates really wants to address the growing inequality gap in America, getting class back on the agenda would be a good place to start.

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Protesters against Gov Walker's antiunion bill, Wisconsin's capitol rotunda (Image: Joe Rowley via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Protesters against Gov Walker’s antiunion bill, Wisconsin capitol rotunda (Image: Joe Rowley via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

by Jonathan E Booth

Union security clauses that determine union dues and mandatory membership have become a contentious issue in the United States, especially recently. Depending on state legislation, unions have potential to negotiate either a union or an agency shop security clause in their respective collective bargaining agreement. Under a union shop, individuals are required to join the union and pay dues as a requirement for working in a unionized workplace. An agency shop does not require membership but does require payment of union dues after having been employed because the non-member still benefits from the bargaining agreement. Technically, all unionized workplaces with security clauses in place can only legally be agency shops due to a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that union shop clauses can only be enforced as agency shops (NLRB v. General Motors, 373 U.S. 734). And, dues that employees would have to pay if they determined not to join the union are reduced if they exercise their U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned Beck rights (Communication Workers of America v. Beck, 487 U.S. 735 [1988]) – only financially contributing to the union the proportion of union dues that covers representation associated to collective bargaining and contract administration.

It would seem that the above U.S. Supreme Court decisions (though somewhat harmful to union power) would be enough to provide those employees in unionized environments an “out” if they preferred not to join the union yet would still hold them somewhat accountable by having them contribute to the union – especially given they still benefit from the union contract but are not members in a unionized workplace.

Well, this is questionable. Previous to these U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which allows U.S. State legislatures to pass laws that ban the inclusion of security clauses in collective bargaining agreements. Thus, over the past 60 years or so, states particularly in the South, Rockies, and Great Plains have passed Right to Work (RTW) laws that prohibit unionized workplaces to require employees to join and pay dues to the union – fostering an influx of non-members in unionized workplaces. It is important to note that non-members in unionized environments are covered and protected by the collective bargaining agreement in their respective workplace.

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Saveunions

Steve Early. Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. Monthly Review Press. February 2014.

Book review by Melanie Simms

Steve Early is a well-known commentator on the complex world of US trade unionism. His analyses are often provocative and always well-informed as he has worked in and around the US labor movement for more than 40 years. This is his third book since he retired from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) union. Evidently he is a man who intends to use the freedom of retirement to stir up debate.

As the subtitle suggests, the book brings together a series of previous pieces he has written for a range of audiences. Typically, they are from the journals, newspapers and websites that cover US labor issues: Labor Notes, Huffington Post, Working In These Times etc. And the tone of the dispatches taken as a whole is distressing. The reader is undoubtedly left with a strong view that the US labor movement is in very deep trouble and that strategies to plot a future course have been ill-fated

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Eduardo Porter had a nice piece in the New York Times two days ago entitled “Unionizing the Bottom of the Pay Scale.” His article dovetails with my recent post here on how mainstream economics has little to say about the the problem of growing structural demand for low-skill service workers.

In Porter’s words:

“To improve the lives of American workers, most economists argue, we might do better by focusing on education to equip them with the skills to perform more productive, better-paid jobs.

But this argument overlooks the fact that the McJob is hardly a niche of the labor market reserved for the uneducated few. Rather, it might be the biggest job of our future.”

He goes on to note that “In countries where more than half of workers belong to a union, only 12 percent of jobs pay” low-wages.

For readers who have not been following this union drive, Steven Greenhouse also had a story on it last week, in which he quoted eminent labor sociologist Ruth Milkman on the problem of organizing such a transient workforce.

In the lede article in Tuesday’s New York Times, David Leonhardt pointed out that a critical topic has been glaringly absent from the presidential debate: the standard of living of Americans.

Hats off to Leonhardt and the Times for bringing this issue to the front page. Unfortunately, as is typical of the Times and other media outlets, the article was based exclusive on interviews with mainstream economists.

A particularly sharp juxtaposition between economic and sociological analyses of living standards and inequality was posed today with the publication of a symposium of sociologists in the journal Work and Occupations on Arne Kalleberg’s recent book, Good Jobs, Bad Jobs.

Based on his interviews with economists, Leonhard lists the top two causes of “a decade of income stagnation” as automation and globalization. No one to blame here, just impersonal forces we can’t control!

Among a “second group” of forces, he notes rising health care costs and “shrinking” unions.

In contrast, neither Kalleberg nor any of his commenters highlight technology as playing an independent role in wage stagnation and growing inequality, unmediated by the decisions of managers and policymakers. Instead, Kalleberg focuses on the rise of low-wage work, driven by a shifting balance of power between employers and workers as employers, aided by policymakers, engaged in corporate restructuring to achieve flexibility.

Globalization is a key force here, indeed. But rather than viewing it as an impersonal force to which corporations respond, sociologists emphasize how globalization is actively created by American corporations through global outsourcing.

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J. Jill employee via Life Magazine

I’ve started to notice more “help wanted” signs in retail stores.  Does this mean that the economy is recovering?  People may be shopping more, and stores may be hiring more.  But retail jobs will never improve this economy unless retail jobs are improved.

In this industry, full-time schedules are rare—most people are hired on a temporary and part-time basis—and pay is slightly more than minimum wage.  These jobs offer neither benefits nor opportunities for advancement.  Although many stores advertise “flexible” schedules, hours are worked only “as needed,” with schedules and hours shifting from one week to the next with little advance warning.  Workers cannot support themselves on the wages from these jobs.

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Wal-Mart Warehouse in Chile

Warehouse work, hidden by its very nature from the view of the general public, is increasingly a low wage job. Dave Jamieson, a reporter for the Huffington Post recently wrote an excellent piece on working conditions inside U.S. warehouses http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/20/new-blue-collar-temp-warehouses_n_1158490.html. While his discoveries about piece rate systems and subcontracting are not new, he shows how the industry has significantly changed in the last decade. The article reminded me a lot of my early work on the garment industry in Los Angeles, where mostly Asian and Latina workers toiled in sweatshops. It has become clear that warehouse work for corporations such as Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon are examples of the new American sweatshop. Read More