Decent Work

During World War II and the postwar boom, when unions had more influence and labor laws from the New Deal era were enforced, increasing numbers of Americans enjoyed a regularized working life. This included predictable earnings and benefits that increased with the productivity of the economy as well as a regular relationship with an employer who was subject to laws governing wages, hours, and working conditions.

Thanks to these laws and the power of the labor movement, during the first decades after the war, more and more workers joined what economists call the primary labor market -- regular jobs with reliable wages, benefits, and terms of employment. The expectation was that casual jobs would gradually take on the characteristics of primary ones.

Instead, more and more jobs today are becoming casualized. The informal economy is encroaching on the formal. Supposedly, this shift reflects mainly the technical changes in the information economy. But temporary and contract employment is being used far beyond technological imperatives or the necessity of employers for flexibility -- because it helps employers avoid unions and evade legal obligations.

Millions of workers who report to the same job at the same employer every day are disguised as contract or temporary workers. Millions of others who may have more than one employer are denied basic rights under the law.

But it doesn't have to be that way, even with the existing structure of industry. Between government's power as a contractor and government's ability to start systemically enforcing laws already on the books, millions of bad jobs could be turned into good ones.

There is no good reason why government could not once again play a more assertive role in regularizing the rights of workers and the conditions of work. What's missing is the political will and the political coalition to demand these actions of government. Some of this would take legislation, but much of it could be done by executive order and enforcement. Actions are already being taken by progressive city governments, such as Los Angeles', to improve the conditions of private-sector jobs over which the city has some leverage.


This special report includes several articles by distinguished labor writers that survey labor abuses across a wide spectrum of occupations and industries; initiatives being taken by state, federal, and local government; and a review by labor historian Steve Fraser of the leverage of government contracting during World War II. The report closes with an agenda-setting piece by Paul Sonn and Annette Bernhardt of the National Employment Law Project.

In addition to the example of wartime contracting as a force for dramatically improving the conditions of work, one other piece of American history is worth invoking. The first executive orders on affirmative action in hiring and promotion, issued in the 1960s, were based entirely on government's power as a contractor. Indeed, the very concept of affirmative action was invented by the Kennedy administration in 1961, using government's power as a contractor to make progress on civil rights at a time when legislative action was blocked by the power of racist committee chairmen.

The original Kennedy order, issued March 6, 1961, required government contractors to "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." The Kennedy and Johnson executive orders required affirmative measures to desegregate employment opportunities, not just on government contract work but in the entire employment practices of any company seeking a federal contract. Today, the federal government could similarly hold contractors to high standards with regard to wages, working conditions, and compliance with other labor laws. As Peter Dreier writes in this report, some city governments have begun enforcing contractor decent-work practices throughout their entire work force.

In the quest for good jobs, the spotlight has been on such strategies as using green energy as a source of new industries and employment opportunities and increasing access to education to create a better trained work force. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, likewise, would safeguard the right to join a union and help the labor movement organize a new generation of often abused workers.

Collective bargaining continues to be central to a decently paid workforce, and government's enforcement of other worker rights works in tandem with union organizing. With a new administration, and the creation of the vice president's task force on middle-class working families, this is a moment to think creatively about all the ways that government can contribute to regularized, decent work.

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