Labor

Could You Live on $11,940 a Year?

A couple of months ago, Fox News host Neil Cavuto went on a rant against fast-food workers striking for higher wages, explaining that when he was but a wee pup of 16, he went to work at an Arthur Treacher's restaurant for a mere $2 an hour, setting him on the road to becoming the vigorous and well-remunerated cheerleader for capitalism he is today. For all his economic acumen, Cavuto seemed to forget that there's a thing called "inflation," and the two bucks he earned in 1974 would today be worth $9.47. That's less than the striking fast-food workers are asking for (they want $15 an hour), but significantly more than the $7.25 today's minimum-wage workers make. Not to mention the fact that so many of them are not teenagers but adults trying to survive and support families. (According to the Economic Policy Institute, 88 percent of those who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage are over the age of 20; that and much more data on the topic can be found here.)

Yesterday, the California legislature passed a bill raising the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour, which would make it the highest in the nation. Governor Jerry Brown intends to sign it. Of course, business interests howled that paying people such a handsome wage would destroy the state's economy, which is what they always say whenever the minimum wage is raised, despite the fact that it never seems to happen. The California increase is going to be phased in over two and a half years; the minimum in the state will rise from its current $8 to $9 next summer, then to $10 at the beginning of 2016. Since this issue seems to be coming back to the fore as it does periodically—the mayor of Washington, DC just vetoed a living wage bill that was aimed primarily at Walmart—I thought it might be worthwhile to compare the value of the minimum wage today to what it has been in the past:

Trumka's Ploy

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster

The AFL-CIO Convention concluded Wednesday, having made some major structural changes in the way labor will operate—though nowhere near so major as the changes that the Federation’s top leader was advocating in the weeks leading up to the convention.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka iterated and reiterated that labor would no longer limit its members to those who had successfully convinced their employers to recognize their union. With employers able to flout labor law with impunity, illegally firing workers who sought to organize and refusing to sign contracts with those whose unions had won recognition elections, the number of workers who actually emerge with a contract grows smaller with each passing year. So the Federation’s unions would welcome workers who had tried to organize their workplace but didn’t prevail. It would welcome workers such as cab drivers, who were misclassified as independent contractors and legally proscribed from forming a union, though they were actually employees. It would welcome domestic workers, who also had been excluded from National Labor Relations Act coverage, and day laborers.

Unions—Not Just for Middle-Aged White Guys Anymore

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster

During the floor debate yesterday on a resolution expanding the AFL-CIO’s commitment to take the workers excluded from the labor law’s protections into its ranks—domestic workers, taxi drivers, day laborers and the like—one delegate to the union’s quadrennial convention likened the proceedings to the 1935 AFL Convention, when a sizable group of unionists wanted the Federation to expand its ranks to include factory workers. The more conservative Federation leaders, including its president, William Green, believed that unions should represent only workers in skilled trades – carpenters, masons, plumbers and so on. But John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers and Sidney Hillman of the Clothing Workers believed that there were millions of factory workers who would flock to unions if given the chance.

Labor Goes Community

AP Images/Jacquelyn Martin

“Community is the new density,” AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Shuler said yesterday, just moments before the labor federation’s quadrennial convention was gaveled to order in Los Angeles. For those who follow labor-speak, the remark was both an acknowledgement of American labor’s crisis, and a guide to the strategy with which it hopes to recover.

Your New Robot Colleague Has Been Programmed to Put You At Ease

Baxter, a friendly robot colleague who'd love to hang out with you after work. (Flickr/Steve Jurvetson)

As robots move into more and more workplaces in the coming decades—not just high-tech manufacturing but eventually everything from hospitals to supermarkets—one of the big challenges employers will face is making their carbon-based workforce comfortable with the new arrivals. That's the topic of an interesting story in The Economist (h/t Kevin Drum) that focuses not just on the technology but on how the robots make us feel, and what must be done to keep people from freaking out when they find out their new partner is made of metal and plastic. It seems that the psychology of human-robot interaction is going to be a burgeoning field in the next few years:

When Giving It the Old College Try Fails

Almost half of Americans drop out of college and are left with debt. Is it time for a bigger investment in vocational training for young people? 

AP Images/Jae C. Hong

Jesse Bonds graduated from high school in 2002 in Clinton, Arkansas, a town of 2,600 people on the southern edge of the Ozarks. He tried college for half a semester, but found the computer-programming courses he enrolled in too advanced. After that, he worked for the state’s power utility for about six months building substations, but his crew was laid off once the work was complete. He was looking for a new career when he was hired as an electrician at a new hospital being built in 2003, and when the work was done he realized he wanted to continue working as an electrician. He decided to enroll in ITT Technical Institute to get a two-year degree in electronics engineering. “I saw all the commercials and stuff,” he says. “And I got into the admissions office and they’re like, ‘Oh you scored the highest of anybody that’s come through here on this test in the last couple of years. You’ll be perfect for this program.’” In retrospect, Bonds realizes they were doing a hard sell on the program, but at the time he decided it was a chance to go back to college and make it on his own. “That turned out to be a disaster.”

One Way to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Since the Great Recession began in 2007, no one’s had more trouble finding work than low-income Asian, black, and Hispanic male teenagers. That’s the main idea in two recent articles in The Wall Street Journal (available here and here) that rely on research from Andrew Sum, a professor who produces a remarkable number of papers for Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies (CLMS).

Fashioning Justice for Bangladesh

AP Images/Ismail Ferdous

After two major strikes, in 1909 and 1910, and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, organizers rode the wave of worker militancy and public outrage to increase union membership of New York’s garment factories. With the period of full employment during World War I, unionization in the garment trades peaked at 129,000, despite having little protection from government. But in the 1920s, the industry managed to weaken the unions with a technique identical to the one used by the big fashion brands today. Instead of producing in their own factories, they contracted with “jobbers” and subcontractors, both to disperse the workforce and to diffuse responsibility for the appalling conditions. The economic collapse of the Great Depression reduced union membership even further.

Back in the Big Labor Fold

AP Images/Gene J. Puskar

Last Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—the 1.3 million-member union of retail workers, chiefly supermarket employees—announced that it was leaving the breakaway mini-labor federation, Change To Win, and rejoining the AFL-CIO. Of the six unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005 to form Change To Win—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, the UFCW, UNITE HERE, the Laborers and the United Farm Workers (UFW)—only SEIU, the Teamsters and the Farm Workers (the last with probably fewer than 10,000 members) remain. Two-point-zero-something unions do not a federation make, but then, Change To Win, despite all its lofty ambitions, never really amounted to a federation.

L.A. Story

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy: a new model for American liberalism?

flickr/AlphaProject

Take a left as you exit the Long Beach Airport, and you’ll pass three acres of greenery named “Rosie the Riveter Park.” The park stands at the southeast corner of what had once been the mammoth Douglas Aircraft factory, where DC-3s, -4s, -5s, all the way up to -10s, were once manufactured, and where, during World War II, 43,000 workers, half of them women, built the B-17 bombers and C-47 transports that flew missions over Europe and the Pacific.

World War II and then the Cold War remade Long Beach. Federal dollars funded the Douglas factory, a new naval shipyard, and numerous defense firms. An entire city—the working-class community of Lakewood, which borders Long Beach on the north—was built to house the sudden influx of defense workers. Long Beach became and remains the second-largest city in Los Angeles County.

The new jobs paid well; powerful unions represented the workers in the factories and on the docks. Military spending, though, began to decline after the Vietnam War, and when the Cold War ended, Long Beach and the broader Los Angeles economy took a hit from which neither has recovered. The naval shipyard closed in 1997. Douglas, Lockheed, and North American Aviation—the aircraft manufacturers that had been the region’s largest private-sector employers—downsized and eventually shuttered almost all their Southern California plants.

False Concerns for the Poor

(Flickr/Mark Sedella)

Fast food workers have been organizing across the country for months now, and last week a series of spectacular coordinated strikes generated a deluge of media coverage. As you'd expect, the right-wing media and pundit class came out swinging against the workers with their usual mix of hateful trashing and concern trolling.

Part-Time America

AP Images/Matt Slocum

Of the 963,000 jobs created in the past six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Household Surveys, 936,000 of them are part-time. That doesn’t mean that just 27,000 of the people hired on to new jobs got full-time work. The total for part-time jobs includes both newly created jobs and formerly full-time gigs that were cut-back to part-time, and the BLS doesn’t pose the questions that would enable it to quantify these two kinds of new part-time jobs. But factoring in both kinds, we do know that the net number of full-time jobs in America has risen by just 27,000 since the end of January.

The Long Road to a Decent Economy

AP Images/Carolyn Kaster

To underscore a weeklong initiative by President Obama on behalf of rebuilding the middle class, the latest figures on GDP growth, released Thursday, and on job growth, made public Friday, show just how far from a healthy middle class economy we are.

The Least We Could Pay

AP Photo/Jim Mone, File

In his campaign to drum up public support for a post-recess budget deal with Congress, President Barack Obama has repeated a call he first made in his 2013 State of the Union speech: an increase in the federal minimum wage. This past January, he called for a $9 minimum wage, up from the $7.25 rate that has remained unchanged the past four years. This week, at an Amazon packaging facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he said: “[B]ecause no one who works full-time in America should have to live in poverty, I will keep making the case that we need to raise a minimum wage that in real terms is lower than it was when Ronald Reagan took office. That means more money in consumers’ pockets, and more business for companies like Amazon.”

A $9 federal minimum wage is higher than any current state’s minimum wage except Washington’s.

Moral Mondays and the South’s New Liberal Gospel

Jenny Warburg

By the time the North Carolina General Assembly ended its six-month session last Friday, the state’s first Republican supermajority had done everything in its power to transform the South’s most moderate state into a right-wing dystopia. No state in recent American history has been pushed further to an ideological extreme by a single legislative session. Among many other measures, Republican lawmakers rejected Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. They ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians and slashed them for everyone else. They severely cut public-school funding (while making room for a voucher program that will send public dollars to private schools). They drastically decreased access to abortion. They quashed the earned income tax credit for working, low-income families. In the last days of the session, they passed an astonishingly far-reaching bill that makes voting harder in just about every way—from cutting down on early voting to creating a strict voter-ID requirement to ending same-day registration to prohibiting state-sponsored voter registration drives. On every conceivable front, the newly ascendant Republicans rapidly did—to borrow from the outraged New York Times editorial board—“grotesque damage” to the state.

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