America's expendable workers in today's economy
Sought a union
To get some clout;
Boss spent thousands
To keep it out.
Back in business school, they taught us that a company's major costs were land, labor and capital. There were strategies to minimize each, with labor the most complicated cost to control. That hasn't changed, even though workers have increasingly become replaceable parts, the federal government has weakened labor rights, and much U.S. manufacturing takes place in other countries.
Business has become more inventive too. Union-busting consultants are all the rage. Some law firms specialize in that arena too. One consulting firm, the Labor Relations Institute, boasts about being "dedicated to maintaining a union-free workplace." Clients, including U.S. Airways, pay $375 per hour for this heroic work.
Farm workers have it even worse. You may have read about the Florida tomato pickers. After 15 years of struggle they finally squeezed one more penny per pound out of the growers, without government help. Now, for a year's worth of back-breaking toil they earn about $17,000 instead of the old $10,000. Minimum wage laws don't apply to them.
Keeping unions at bay is an art form. Firing organizers is surely one tried and true technique, as is the filing of endless election appeals to the understaffed National Labor Relations Board. Moving factories to the South with its looser labor laws works well too (think Toyota). Then there's the cute trick of treating abstentions in an organizing election as "no" votes. This usually gets overturned, but the appeals can go on forever.
Ensuring workers' safety is a lower priority for American companies. Take coal mines. Big mining companies have heavy clout with regulatory agencies, and their inspection staffs and schedules are subject to a lot of discretion. Meat packers, garbage haulers, dockworkers, and others are also at risk. Some employers post safety records, with all employees getting a bonus at certain accident-free milestones. Should an accident occur, woe to the worker who reports an accident.
Even government and other white-collar workers aren't safe. Privatizing and outsourcing are on the march in offices and cubicles. My own city long ago outsourced its cleaning staff and is now looking at following suit with its garbage collection. Other union jobs have disappeared as well.
Social Security benefits are beginning to vanish too, as Washington budget cutters aim at further raising the retirement age. Well, that's OK for us columnists. There's always some question whether we're still alive anyway. But I have a friend who works on an asphalt gang. He'll be lucky to make it to his 62nd birthday. And what do we do with nursing home aides, factory workers, loggers, and others in demanding physical jobs? Will there be a hardship clause, or will we wait till they're badly hurt and then put them on disability? And who's going to hire a burned out 60-year-old worker?
With the success of the war on unions, the growing dominance of money in politics, the popularity of overseas sweatshops, and the rise of robotic manufacturing, America no longer needs so many workers. These shifts mostly account for their steady disappearance from the middle economic class into the lower economic class.
But it sure was fun while it lasted.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.