Friday, July 24, 2020

Workers Power

Under American law, employers are required to listen to their workers only when they have a labor union, but just 11.6% of American workers are represented by unions. As for the other 88.4% of workers, employers don’t have to listen to their views on anything – not safety, not pay, not anything else.  The whole notion of “worker voice” is rarely discussed.

A 2018 MIT study shows that American workers very much want a voice on the job. Ninety three per cent want a say on job safety, with 50.8% wanting “a lot of say” and 23.5% “unlimited say” on safety. A hefty majority also wants a lot of say on job security, being treated with respect, and anti-discrimination and harassment policies. The MIT study also found that 50% of non-union, non-managerial workers said they wished they had a union.

There is huge focus on America’s income and wealth inequality, a phenomenon that has hurt Black Americans especially, but there is not nearly enough focus on how the weakened voice of workers has contributed to that inequality. It is no coincidence that the US has the weakest worker voice of any industrial nation, and also the greatest income inequality.  A stronger voice for workers reduces inequality by pushing for higher pay, more generous social security and pension benefits, higher taxes on the rich and greater restraints on executive pay. 

Two IMF economists have argued that “the decline in unionization” (and the accompanying decline in worker voice and bargaining power) “explains about half of the rise in incomes for the richest 10%” in advanced industrial nations and about half the increase in those nations’ main measure of income inequality.

Weak worker voice fuels not just economic inequality, but also political inequality. “The views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution” receive “no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators”, according to research by the political scientist Larry Bartels.

By 80% to 17%, Americans want Congress to enact nationwide paid parental leave, yet the US remains the only wealthy country that doesn’t guarantee paid parental leave to all workers.

A big reason workers are largely ignored in Washington: corporations donated $2.8bn in the 2017-18 election cycle, sixteen times as much as the $171m contributed by labor. Moreover, business spent $3bn on lobbying in Washington last year, 60 times as much as the $49m spent by labor.

In May, workers at a McDonald’s in San Francisco said that when they asked their employer for masks, they were told to use coffee filters instead. In April, at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, a workers’ representative saw only two hand sanitizers for the facility’s 5,000 employees. A Walmart worker in New Orleans said in April that several cashiers were sent home without pay for refusing managers’ orders to stop wearing masks, after some shoppers interpreted it as a sign they had Covid-19. Some financially stretched retail workers say they were all but forced to go to work sick because their companies didn’t give paid sick leave for Covid-19 unless they first had a test showing they had contracted the virus, and in many places it was extremely hard to get tested. Alarmed about the spread of Covid-19, health officials in Colorado criticized the JBS meatpacking company for having a “work while sick” culture. At a Mom’s Organic Market in Philadelphia, workers voiced alarm that their store was experiencing abnormally high sales volume, but little was being done to limit the crowding.

If companies paid more attention to their workers’ concerns about safety, would a staggering 890 workers at the Tyson pork plant in Logansport, Indiana, have contracted Covid-19? Would more than 780 workers at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota? Would eight workers have died at JBS’s beef-processing plant in Greeley, Colorado?

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