Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘wages’

New York manicurists to get emergency protections against wage theft, hazardous chemicals

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

Laura ClawsonTalk about journalism with an immediate impact. Last week’s New York Times investigation of labor law violations and unhealthy working conditions for manicurists in the city’s nail salons has spurred Gov. Andrew Cuomo to take sweeping emergency action:

Nail salons that do not comply with orders to pay workers back wages, or are unlicensed, will be shut down. […]Salons will be required to publicly post signs that inform workers of their rights, including the fact that it is illegal to work without wages or to pay money for a job — a common practice in the nail salon industry, according to workers and owners. The signs will be in half a dozen languages, including those most spoken in the industry — Korean, Chinese and Spanish. […]

Salons will now be required to be bonded — which is intended to ensure, through a contract with a bonding agency, that workers can eventually be paid if salon owners are found to have underpaid the workers. The move is an attempt to counteract the phenomenon of salon owners’ hiding assets when they are found guilty of wage theft.

Additionally, health and safety measures will be put in place, like requiring manicurists to wear gloves and masks and salons to be ventilated, while the Health Department will investigate the most effective health protections to incorporate into what will eventually be permanent policies replacing the short-term emergency measures.

Some of the abuses Sarah Maslin Nir’s investigation into New York City nail salons exposed may be especially prevalent in New York, where there are more nail salons per capita than in any other American city and where manicures cost below the national average. That might, for instance, make wage theft more common and more aggressive than in other locations—but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening in California and Illinois and Massachusetts, too, and states should take this as a spur to inspect their own nail salons. And the health hazards manicurists face similarly deserve a good hard look by state regulators. Customers might end up paying a couple dollars more for a mani-pedi, but we’re talking about workers’ lives here, and their ability to collect the pay they’ve legally earned.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on May 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

Put Working People First

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Leo GerardThe jobs report Friday set off cheering: a quarter million positions added in December; unemployment declining to 5.6 percent. This good news arrived amid a booming stock market and a third-quarter GDP report showing the strongest growth in 11 years.

It’s all so very jolly, except for one looming factor: wages. They’re not rising. In fact, they fell in December by 5 cents an hour, nearly erasing the 6-cent increase in November.

Hard-working Americans need a raise. Their wages are stuck, rising only 10.2 percent over the past 35 years. Workers are producing more. Corporations are highly profitable. CEOs, claiming all the credit for that as if they did all of the work themselves, made sure their pay rose 937 percent over those 35 years. That’s right: 937 percent!

It doesn’t add up for workers who struggle more every year. Something’s gotta change. The AFL-CIO is working on that. It launched a campaign last week to wrench worker wages out of the muck and push them up.

At a summit called Raising Wages held in Washington, D.C., last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, “We are tired of people talking about inequality as if nothing can be done. The answer is simple: raise the wages of the 90 percent of Americans whose wages are lower today than they were in 1997.”

“Families don’t need to hear more about income inequality,” he said; “They need more income.”

The meeting attended by 350 union representatives, community group officials, economic experts and religious leaders was the first of many that will be conducted across the country by the AFL-CIO to spotlight the pain and problems that wage stagnation causes. The AFL-CIO will begin these meetings in the first four presidential primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and North Carolina.

The idea is to ensure that candidates, Republican and Democrat, can’t squirm out of dealing with the issue. And Trumka said labor won’t tolerate sappy expressions of sympathy. The federation will demand concrete plans for resolution.

Also last week, the AFL-CIO launched Raising Wages campaigns with community partners in seven cities – Atlanta, Columbus, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. In addition to seeking wage increases for all who labor, these coalitions will pursue associated issues such as fighting for paid sick leave and equal pay for equal work.

At the same time, the AFL-CIO and allies will push for federal legislation to seriously punish employers who illegally retaliate against workers and to provide real remedies for workers unjustly treated.

At the summit, workers told their stories alongside experts. Among them was Colby Harris, who suffered illegal retaliation. A member of OUR Walmart, he was fired last year after participating in strikes for better conditions.

“They are trying to silence people for saying we need better wages and benefits. The average Walmart worker makes less than $23,000 a year. These companies have no respect for their workers,” Harris told the group.

Another speaker, Lakia Wilson, said that workers can do everything right, work hard, follow all the rules and still lose out in this economy. The Detroit native earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in counseling. While serving as a school counselor, she took a second job as an adjunct professor at a community college to make enough money to qualify for a home mortgage.

But then, in a cutback at the college, she was laid off. She lost the extra income, and the bank began foreclosure. It was, she said, a horrible, humiliating experience. She cashed out her retirement to save her home. Now her credit and retirement are shot. This happened to her, and to so many others, she said, even though they “did everything necessary to get a good job and get the American dream.”

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren talked to summit attendees about why the economy does not work for people like Wilson and Harris. Though this economy is splendid for those who own lots of stock, it’s not for the vast majority of workers who get their income from wages.

Sen. Warren pointed out that the economy didn’t always work this way. From the 1930s to the 1970s, she said, workers got raises. Ninety percent of workers received 70 percent of the income growth resulting from rising productivity. The 10 percent at the top took 30 percent.

Since 1980, however, that stopped. Ninety percent of workers got none of the gains from income growth. The top 10 percent took 100 percent. The average family is working harder but still struggling to survive with stagnant wages and growing costs.

“Many feel the game is rigged against them, and they are right. The game is rigged against them,” Sen. Warren said.

The rigging was adoption of Ronald Reagan’s voodoo trickle-down strategy.  That economic plot puts massive corporations, Wall Street and the 1 percent first. Politicians bowed down to them, legislated for them, deregulated for them. In return, the wealthy were supposed to chuck a few measly crumbs down to workers.

They did not. Workers got nothing.

Despite that, workers still get last consideration. That, Sen. Warren said, must be reversed.

Accomplishing that, clearly, is a David vs. Goliath challenge. David won that contest, and workers can as well – with concerted action. Papa John’s worker Shantel Walker told the summit such a story – one of victory against a giant with collective action.

She discovered that a teenager at the New York franchise where she worked was putting in time that was not clocked. The restaurant was stealing wages.

Walker helped organize a protest at the restaurant. Between 80 and 100 people rallied for justice for the young worker. And they won. The restaurant paid the teen. “Now is the time to stop the poverty wages in America,” Walker said; “Raise the wage!”

Trumka said the AFL-CIO and its allies will demand that of lawmakers. He said they would insist that legislators “build an America where we, the people, share in the wealth we create.”

For that to occur, lawmakers must serve the vast majority first. They must stop functioning as handmaidens to the rich in an economic scheme that has failed the 99 percent from the very day the 1 percent got Ronald Reagan to buy it.

The AFL-CIO and its allies intend to help lawmakers see that they must prioritize the needs of America’s workers.

This article originally appeared in ourfuture.org on January 13, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers (USW), took office in 2001 after the retirement of former president George Becker.

The Dark Side Of the Jobs Report: Shrinking Workforce, Stagnant Wages

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

Image: Dean BakerThe unemployment rate edged down to 5.6 percent in December from 5.7 percent in November (revised from an earlier reported 5.8 percent), the Labor Department reported today. However, the main reason was that 273,000 workers reportedly left the labor force. The employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) was unchanged at 59.2 percent, roughly 4.0 percentage points below the pre-recession level.

The establishment survey showed the economy adding 252,000 jobs in December. With upward revisions to the prior two months’ data, this brings the three-month average to 289,000.

Some of the job growth in December was likely attributable to better than usual weather for the month. For example, construction reportedly added 48,000 jobs; restaurant employment rose by 43,600. But even without these strong gains, there was still healthy job growth. Manufacturing added 17,000 jobs, finance added 10,000, and professional and business services added 52,000. Unlike prior months, the jobs in this sector were mostly (35,200) in the less well-paying administrative and waste services category.

The health care sector added 34,100 jobs. Job growth in this sector has accelerated sharply, averaging 36,500 over the last three months. By comparison, it averaged just 21,200 in the year from September 2013 to September 2014. Retail added just 7,700 jobs. This reflects the earlier than usual Christmas hiring, which added 88,300 jobs the prior two months.

The story on wages is less encouraging. The widely touted November jump in wages was almost completely reversed, with the December data showing a 5-cent drop from a downwardly revised November figure. The average over the last three months grew at a 1.1 percent annual rate compared with the average of the prior three months, down from a 1.7 percent growth rate over the last year. This may be due in part to a shift to lower paying jobs in restaurants, retail, and the lower-paying portions of the health care industry. However, it is also possible that we are just seeing anomalous data. Nonetheless, the claims of accelerating wage growth have no support in the data.

Interestingly, there seems to be some shift to generally less-skilled production and non-supervisory workers. The index of weekly hours for these workers is up 3.6 percent from its year-ago level. By contrast, the index for all workers is up by just 3.3 percent. Since the former group is more than 80 percent of the payroll employees, hours for supervisory workers would have risen by just 2.5 percent. This is consistent with employment data showing much sharper employment gains for workers with high school degrees or less than for college grads. The EPOP for college grads is actually down by 0.2 percentage points over the last year.

Other data worth noting in the household survey include a rise in the employment-to-population ratio for African Americans of 1.8 percentage points over the last year and for African-American men of 2.2 percentage points. The EPOP for African Americans is up by 3.9 percentage points from its low in 2011, although it is still down by 4.0 percentage points from pre-recession levels. The 10.4 percent December unemployment rate for African Americans is down from a recession peak of 16.8 percent.

This report shows some evidence of the labor market effects of the Affordable Care Act. While the number of people choosing to work part-time was down slightly from its November level, it is still 1.1 million above its year-ago level. The number of people who are self-employed is also up from its year-ago level. Averaging the last three months, the number of self-employed workers is up by 480,000 (3.5 percent) from the same months of 2013. (It had been dropping in 2013.) Also, the over-55 age group comprised just 37.6 percent of employment growth in 2014, compared to an average of 65.3 percent in the prior two years. This could indicate that many pre-Medicare age workers now feel they can retire since they can get insurance through the exchanges.

On the whole, this is clearly a very positive report with the strong December jobs number (even if inflated by weather) coupled with upward revisions to the prior two months. However, quit rates are still very low and wage growth remains weak. This should remind the public of how far the labor market has to go before making up the ground lost in the recession.

This article originally appeared in Ourfuture.org on January 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Dean Baker is an American economist whose books have been published by the University of Chicago Press, MIT Press, and Cambridge University Press.

Takeaways from the 2014 Elections for Working Families

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Mary Kay HenryDespite a tough night with many close races, a key takeaway from Election Day is the progress made toward raising wages for working families for an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.

Raising the minimum wage was a winning issue yesterday in red, blue, and purple states.
In deeply conservative states like Nebraska and South Dakota, the economy isn’t working for working people and the message from voters was clear: we’ve got to increase wages.

In San Francisco, where workers will get to $15 an hour a year ahead of Seattle, we saw incredible momentum built from the Fight for $15, where workers have had the courage to come out and call for wages they can raise a family on without having to cobble together 2-3 jobs and still live on the brink.

Working families issues also prevailed in Oakland with the increase in the wage to $12.25 and earned sick time, which also passed in Massachusetts.

The minimum-wage results and wins in Governors’ races in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Connecticut show that working families want action on higher wages.

I spent yesterday in Pennsylvania, where folks were so excited to get out and volunteer for Tom Wolf, who made it crystal clear from the very beginning the sharp contrast with Gov. Corbett on wages, healthcare, and education.

We need more champions like Tom Wolf, Mark Dayton and Dan Malloy. They won because of their leadership on the issues that families care about: higher wages, good jobs, better schools, and affordable healthcare. Full-throated champions of those issues can and will win.
The Fight for $15’s momentum continued even on a tough night like last night because of the boldness of the fast food workers, home care workers, Walmart workers and others. Their courage to stand up for a living wage is helping the nation understand that if you work hard for a living, you ought to be able to work one job and live a decent life

The wins in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Connecticut and in the minimum wage initiatives show that there is a clear path forward for working people. Working people will keep fighting for higher wages and good jobs, at the ballot box, in the workplace, in our communities and on the street.

This blog originally appeared in SEIU.org on November 5, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.seiu.org/2014/11/takeaways-from-the-2014-elections-for-working-fami.php

About the Author: Mary Kay Henry is the president of the SEIU.

Victory for Missouri Home Care Workers!

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

seiuAfter almost a year of bargaining, Missouri home care workers have reached a historic agreement with the state’s Quality Home Care Council that will raise wages from an average of $8.58 per hour up to $10.15 per hour for many. Home care workers will also receive holiday pay for the first time.

This victory comes just a week after hundreds of home care workers met at the Home Care Workers Rising summit in St. Louis and rallied to demand Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon raise wages. More than a hundred home workers united in SEIU’s Home Care Fight for $15 – both union and nonunion – attended the summit.

The agreement allows consumers to determine the wages of their home care workers. Choosing from a “wage range” of $8.50 to $10.15, consumers will be directly involved with workers and the union. The Missouri Home Care Union bargaining team viewed this unique proposal as a way to strengthen the relationship between better jobs and quality care.

“Home care workers in Missouri have fought long and hard–more than six years now–to get the rights and dignity that come with this contract,” said Linda Carter, a home care attendant from St. Louis.

“Because of our fight, and through the help of the Quality Home Care Council and Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration in reaching this agreement, home care attendants and consumers will be better off here than they ever have been,” she said.

The agreement must now be ratified by the Missouri Quality Home Care Council and by the members of the Missouri Home Care Union. (More details here).

This blog originally appeared on SEIU.org on October 21, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.seiu.org/2014/10/victory-for-missouri-home-care-workers.php

Debunking the Heritage Foundation’s New Minimum Wage Myths One by One

Friday, September 12th, 2014

The Heritage Foundation released a new Issue Brief this week: “Higher Fast-Food Wages: Higher Fast Food Prices”. Author James Sherk claims that if the minimum wage in the fast-food industry were to increase to $15 an hour, “the average fast-food restaurant would have to raise prices by nearly two-fifths … caus[ing] sales to drop by more than one-third, and profits to fall by more than three-quarters.”

While the Heritage Foundation attempts to present a mathematically and logically correct depiction of the aftermath of a minimum-wage increase, they fail to acknowledge one fundamentally important fact: the increase will be gradual, occurring over a period of years. Even without considering the report’s many other flaws, the Heritage Foundation’s assumption of a sudden jump in the minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 to $15 is unrealistic.

As Vanessa Wong highlights in “This is What Would Happen if Fast-Food Workers Got Raises”, there are two distinct types of outlets: “those run by the company, and those operated by independent franchisees who set their own wages and pay royalties to the chain.” Thus, Heritage Foundation hastily categorized all fast-food restaurants as one, not even considering the elephant in the room: the corporations such as McDonald’s that charge each branch high franchising fees.

So, how much are these small franchisees paying the mother-ship corporations? According to Robert E. Bond’s “How Much Can I Make?” the franchise fee, royalties, and advertising for a typical McDonald’s is $45,000, +12.5%, and 4%. For a doughnut shop like Dunkin’ Donuts, the fees are even higher, with a franchise fee of $50,000.

If Heritage’s figures are correct, these fast-food restaurants have a profit margin of just 3 percent before taxes, which “works out to approximately $27,000 a year.”  Thus, the franchise fee and royalties are way too high — those profits go directly to, in this case, McDonald’s, which  operates at a profit margin of 19.31% as of June 30, 2014.

McDonald’s and other large fast-food companies have successfully shrugged off responsibility for the welfare of its workers by making the franchisees responsible. The low-wage jobs — and the cost of these salaries — are offloaded on the franchisees, while the corporations maintain their guaranteed profits, and relative profit margins from quarter to quarter.

Raising the minimum wage — even if only to $10.10, not to the living wage level of $15 an hour — is an economic imperative. Heritage believes that fast-food restaurants still offer “entry level jobs,” and “generally employ younger and less-experienced workers”.

Fast-food restaurants used to be a place for “entry level employees” — teens and young adults, sometimes still in school, newly entering the workforce. The recession drastically changed the dynamic. Today, at fast-food restaurants, we see the faces of older workers on the other side of the counter. Many are parents who rely on their full-time fast-food jobs to support themselves and their families. Instead of providing a “first work experience”, fast-food jobs are now a primary  source of income for older, experienced workers.

The problem, once again, is corporations. Individual fast-food restaurants should not be the only battlefront in the fight for livable wages. We should demand that the mother-ship fast-food corporations let go of their greed, and lower their franchise fees and annual royalties.

The Heritage Foundation points its finger in the wrong direction: the responsibility for providing minimum wage fast-food workers with a livable wage falls on the corporations.

This article originally appeared in Campaign for America’s Future on September 10, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://ourfuture.org/20140910/debunking-the-heritage-foundations-new-minimum-wage-myths-one-by-one.

About the author: Jiao (Kitty) Lan is a Roosevelt Fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future. She is a sophomore at Georgetown University, majoring in Political Economy and Financial Engineering and has taken an interest in Computer Science in her first two semesters. She has had several political internships, including one with Rep. Mike Honda and one with Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Her top three anything are Pops cereal, her two tiny yet vivacious Pomeranians, and traveling the world.

12 Recent Victories for Workers in Raising Wages and Collective Bargaining

Friday, August 22nd, 2014
Kenneth Quinnell

Kenneth Quinnell

While it certainly seems that far-right extremists are waging an all-out war on working families and their rights, workers aren’t just defending themselves; they are fighting to expand their rights and achieving some significant gains. Here are 12 recent victories we should celebrate while continuing to push for even more wins.

1. AFSCME Sets Organizing Goal, Almost Doubles It: AFSCME President Lee Saunders announced that the union has organized more than 90,000 workers this year, nearly doubling its 2014 goal of 50,000.

2. Tennessee Auto Workers to Create New Local Union at VW Plant: Auto workers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., announced the formation of UAW Local 42, a new local that will give workers an increased voice in the operation of the German carmaker’s U.S. facility. UAW organizers continue to gain momentum, as the union has the support of nearly half of the plant’s 1,500 workers, which would make the union the facility’s exclusive collective bargaining agent.

3. California Casino Workers Organize: Workers at the new Graton Resort & Casino voted to join UNITE HERE Local 2850 of Oakland, providing job security for 600 gambling, maintenance, and food and beverage workers.

4. Virgin America Flight Attendants Vote to Join TWU: Flight attendants at Virgin America voted to join the Transport Workers, citing the success of TWU in bargaining fair contracts for Southwest Airlines flight attendants.

5. Maryland Cab Drivers Join National Taxi Workers Alliance: Cab drivers in Montgomery County, Md., announced their affiliation with the National Taxi Workers Alliance, citing low wages and unethical behavior by employers among their reasons to affiliate with the national union.

6. Retail and Restaurant Workers Win Big, Organize Small: Small groups of workers made big strides as over a dozen employees at a Subway restaurant in Bloomsbury, N.J., voted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Meanwhile, cosmetics and fragrance workers at a Macy’s store in Massachusetts won an NLRB ruling that will allow them to vote on forming a union.

7. Minnesota Home Care Workers Take Key Step to Organize: Home health care workers in Minnesota presented a petition to state officials that would allow a vote on forming a union for more than 26,000 eligible workers.

8. New York Television Writers-Producers Join Writers Guild: Writers and producers from Original Media, a New York City-based production company, voted to join the Writers Guild of America, East, citing low wages, long work schedules and no health care.

9.  Fast-Food Workers Win in New NLRB Ruling: The National Labor Relations Board ruled that McDonald’s could be held jointly responsible with its franchisees for labor violations and wage disputes. The NLRB ruling makes it easier for workers to organize individual McDonald’s locations, and could result in better pay and conditions for workers.

10. Workers Increasingly Have Access to Paid Sick Leave: Cities such as San Diego and Eugene, Ore., have passed measures mandating paid sick leave, providing workers with needed flexibility and making workplaces safer for all.

11. Student-Athletes See Success, Improved Conditions: College athletic programs are strengthening financial security measures for student-athletes in the wake of organizing efforts by Northwestern University football players. In addition, the future is bright as the majority of incoming college football players support forming a union.

12. San Diego Approves Minimum Wage Hike; Portland, Maine, Starts Process: Even as Congress has failed to raise the minimum wage, municipalities across the country have taken action. San Diego will raise the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2017, and the Portland, Maine, Minimum Wage Advisory Committee will consider an increase that would take effect in 2015.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO America’s Unions on August 20, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

Author’s name is Kenneth Quinnell.  He is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Could You Live Off $25k a Year Like Most Walmart Workers? No, You Couldn't.

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

Last month, Walmart CEO Bill Simon revealed rather cluelessly that the vast majority of Walmart workers, as many as 825,000 in the United States, earn less than $25,000 a year. The sum is so low the average worker for the country’s biggest employer is struggling to make ends meet. By matching its low prices with insultingly low wages, Walmart forces taxpayers to subsidize its workforce through social safety net programs.

Making Change at Walmart is running a new series that highlights how some of the retailer’s employees are scraping by on Walmart wages. Here are three of the stories they have shared so far:

Anthony Goytia: The 31-year-old father of three makes about $12,000 a year and relies upon MediCal and food stamps. Some of his teeth were removed because he couldn’t afford the dental work to save them. “I don’t need cable or a big house, but I shouldn’t have to resort to selling my plasma and participating in medical trials to be able to feed my kids,” Goytia said. “I have to live payday loan to payday loan.”

Patricia Locks: A 48-year-old single mother, who makes $19,000 a year, relies on low-income housing, food banks and food stamps to get by. She recently was forced to file for bankruptcy. “It’s depressing and scary. No one who works for one of the world’s largest and wealthiest companies should have to live like this,” said Locks. “I don’t think it’s asking too much to earn enough so I don’t have to rely on food banks and other assistance to survive. And that’s why I am going to keep fighting, because I want a better life for me and my daughter.”

John Paul Ashton: The 31-year-old father of two makes $20,000 a year and also relies upon food stamps and food banks. He walks 45 minutes to work with shoes that have holes in them. “When I first started at Walmart, I was told that it was a place where I could grow and have opportunities. I soon discovered that was not the case,” said Ashton. “People take being able to buy lunch for granted. I don’t need a fancy job, but what I do need is a job that allows me to provide for my family, speak up about working conditions and needing better wages without fear of retaliation, and hopefully have more than $2 in my bank account after I pay my bills.”’

More stories of Walmart workers scraping by on less than $25,000 per year are scheduled to be released every week at MakingChangeAtWalmart.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on November 1, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist whose writings have appeared on AFL-CIO, Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.

Why Unions Are Essential to Tackling the Technology Challenge to Good Jobs

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Image: Richard KirschNew technology is keeping more and more workers stuck in low-wage jobs, and it’s society’s responsibility to make sure those jobs still have dignity and fair wages.

With robots taking over factories and warehouses, toll collectors and cashiers increasingly being replaced by automation and even legal researchers being replaced by computers, the age-old question of whether technology is a threat to jobs is back with us big time. Technological change has been seen as a threat to jobs for centuries, but the history tells that while technology has destroyed some jobs, the overall impact has been to create new jobs, often in new industries. Will that be true after the information revolution as it was in the industrial revolution?

In an article in The New York Times, David Autor and David Dorn, who have just published research on this question, argue that the basic history remains the same: while many jobs are being disrupted, new jobs are being created and many jobs will not be replaceable by computers. While there is good news in their analysis for some in the middle-class, their findings reinforce the need to organize workers in lower-skilled jobs to demand decent wages.

The authors’ research found that while routine jobs are being replaced by computers, the number of both “abstract” and “manually intensive” jobs increased. In their article in the Times, the authors describe the new jobs:

At one end are so-called abstract tasks that require problem-solving, intuition, persuasion and creativity. These tasks are characteristic of professional, managerial, technical and creative occupations, like law, medicine, science, engineering, advertising and design. People in these jobs typically have high levels of education and analytical capability, and they benefit from computers that facilitate the transmission, organization and processing of information.

On the other end are so-called manual tasks, which require situational adaptability, visual and language recognition and in-person interaction. Preparing a meal, driving a truck through city traffic or cleaning a hotel room present mind-bogglingly complex challenges for computers. But they are straightforward for humans, requiring primarily innate abilities like dexterity, sightedness and language recognition, as well as modest training. These workers can’t be replaced by robots, but their skills are not scarce, so they usually make low wages.

As the authors conclude, “This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

When it comes to addressing this attack on the middle class, the authors offer some hope, but not for those low-wage workers. They argue that a large number of skilled jobs, requiring specialized training—although not necessarily a college education—will not be replaceable by computers. These include people who care for our health like medical paraprofessionals, people who care for our buildings like plumbers, people who help us use technology (I was chatting online just yesterday to get tech support) and many others. Because these jobs do require higher levels of skills, they should be able to demand middle-class wages.

But what about those housekeepers, delivery truck drivers and fast-food workers, like those who are taking actions around the country today against fast-food chains to demand better pay. The authors do not offer a path to the middle class for them.

If history is an example here as well, we should remember that lower-skilled work does not have to come with low pay. The workers who stood on assembly lines in the 1930s did not have a college education or years of specialized training; they fought for the right to organize unions and demanded high enough wages to support their families.

This Labor Day, as more and more workers are stuck in the growing number of low-wage jobs, causing enormous stress for their families while keeping the economy sluggish, we need to look to the examples of new ways of organizing workers who can not be replaced by technology. There’s the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, who organized drivers to successfully win living wages and a health and disability fund. Or the successful boycott of Hyatt Hotels, leading to an agreement with UNITE HERE to not fight organizing campaigns in their hotels.

We need to support organizing by modernizing our labor laws to account for the large number of workers not currently or adequately protected, the new ways that work is organized and the global economy.

The lesson from the Autor–Dorn research is that technology doesn’t have to destroy the middle class. What will destroy the middle class is our failure as a society to provide dignity to all workers. That’s what fast-food workers and their community-labor supporters are fighting for across the country.

This article originally appeared in The Next New Deal Blog on August 29, 2013, and was cross-posed on AFL-CIO Now on August 30, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard Kirsch is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a senior adviser to USAction and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was national campaign manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

At MLK March, Renewed Call For Obama Executive Order on Wages

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Bruce VailWASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, labor and civil rights activists are calling on President Barack Obama to honor King with an executive order that would raise wages for as many as two million workers.

One of the most poignant calls came Wednesday from Alvin Turner, a veteran of the famous 1968 Memphis garbage workers strike. Recalling a recent face-to-face meeting with Obama, Turner said “he told me personally he was working hard for the little man. If he don’t sign, he’ll disappoint me badly.”

Turner and others are pressing for an executive order that would establish a “living wage” for workers whose employment is tied to federal government contracts, grants, loans, or property leases. Earlier this year, the labor-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign produced evidence that many fast food workers at government-owned buildings in Washington, D.C., are earning below poverty-level wages, and that the same problems extend to other workers whose jobs are tied to federal government action. A study earlier this year from the pro-labor group Demos estimated an executive order could raise the income of about two million low-wage workers nationwide.

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are making the order a centerpiece of their pro-worker “Raise Up America” campaign launched in late June. The Change to Win federation—backed most notably by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters—is a partner in the Progressive Caucus campaign.

Such an order would not require a vote in Congress or any cooperation from the anti-labor Republicans, noted Mike Casca, a spokesperson for Ellison. The president has sole discretion on whether to issue such orders, and pressure is rising on Obama to do so from prgressive Democrats, labor unions, faith-based groups, and others, Casca said.

If Obama fails to sign the executive order, “the federal government is complicit in the perpetuation of poverty,” charged Bill Lucy, a retired executive of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, who joined Turner Wednesday for a public panel discussion of the issue. A similar executive order was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, he added, so “it’s not like it’s anything new.”

Radio talk-show host Joe Madison said marchers at the Aug. 24 events to honor the 50thanniversary of King’s speech will hear repeated calls from the speaking platform for an executive order. “We will do a disservice to those (original 1963) speakers—to Dr. King, to A. Philip Randolph—if we do not demand” presidential action on an executive order,” Madison said. Without a demand for action “it’s just a ceremony, and we don’t need any more ceremonies,” he said.

“King was at the intersection of the civil rights and labor movements,” commented Moshe Marvit, a lawyer, author and labor activists. King would have understood that “we need bold action from the president in the form of an executive order” to begin raising wages across broad sectors of the economy, Marvit said.

Change to Win spokesperson Paco Pabian told Working In These Times that there has been no unequivocal response from the White House yet on calls for the living wage executive order. There have been reports that Ellison asked Obama directly for such an order at a June 6 meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) had made a similar request, he said. In both cases, lawmakers were told that the matter would be reviewed by White House staff and that a definitive answer would be forthcoming sometime soon, Fabian said.

The push for the executive order gained an important backer on August 12, Fabian noted, when the New York Times published an editorial endorsing the idea.

“Many laws and executive actions from the 1930s to the 1960s, require fair pay for employees of federal contractors. Buth over time, those protections have been eroded by special-interest exemptions, complex contracting processes and lax enforcement. A new executive order could ensure that the awarding of contracts based on the quality of jobs created, challenging the notion that best contract is the one with the lowest labor costs,” the New York Times editors wrote.

Full disclosure: AFSCME is a web sponsor of In These Times.

This article originally appeared on In These Times on August 24, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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