Workers feel the squeeze
By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published September 3, 2006
When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: "Whose?"
- Don Marquis, American humorist
With Labor Day approaching, it is time to assess the nature of work in this burgeoning Information Age. Are American workers better off than they were a couple of generations ago? Will they be better off in the future?
I can't imagine that many middle-class workers feel much optimism. America's middle class is being squeezed by soaring energy prices, rising health care costs and, here in Florida, insurance rates that are doubling and doubling again. The housing bubble is rapidly losing air, making the one asset that most Americans own less secure, while wage stagnation is making us poorer.
President Bush has been touting the health of the nation's economy, pointing to its vigorous productivity gains of 16.6 percent from 2000 to 2005. But what he doesn't say is that those gains have accrued exclusively to Bush's people - the owner class and other top dogs. While corporate profits are through the roof, the real median income of households headed by someone under 65 - the country's working families - has actually fallen 5.4 percent through the Bush years.
The question is whether this reversal for Joe Lunchbox will continue or whether something will come along to rescue America's middle class.
Workers' fortunes have always been buffeted by two forces: technology and government.
The introduction of the car and its offshoot, the tractor, along with the electrification of factories, took people off family farms at the turn of the 20th century. In 1900, about half of all Americans worked on a farm. By 2000, only 2 percent of Americans were still there.
The Industrial Age moved workers into the manufacturing sector, where, thanks to the combined strength of unions and the progressive policies of the federal government, employees shared in the nation's prosperity
After a tumultuous beginning in which big business, often with the assistance of government, colluded to break the back of organized labor, unions finally established themselves, helping to guarantee workers a fair share of productivity gains. Under the New Deal, federal labor laws secured base-line wages and overtime pay for more than a 40-hour work week, among many other vital protections.
Those middle decades of the 20th century offered steadily rising living standards. Productivity more than doubled from 1947 through 1973 and median family income went up by the same percentages. These glory days have become cemented in the American mind as the normative of modern work - where long, loyal service is rewarded with growing remuneration, job security and a pension. But all that has turned out to be a chimera.
Shared prosperity has not become a cultural fixture or a permanent social advance like the elimination of indenture. It was abandoned as soon as Corporate America was able to shake it off. When things started to teeter in the mid 1970s and unionized manufacturing jobs were replaced by nonunion service sector jobs, business saw its chance. A new, aggressive antiunionism took hold, and Corporate America strategized ways to bypass federal labor protections, such as making everyone salaried to avoid overtime payments. As Republicans gained power in the White House and Congress, these tactics were enthusiastically encouraged.
The median family's standard of living would have nearly stopped rising had it not been for women flooding into the workplace and all workers putting in more time on the job. Rather than the 30-hour work week that was once touted as the future of work, the average American worker puts in more hours today than at any time since the 1920s.
We are now at the beginnings of the Information Age - a shift due to technological advances in computing - and some futurists seem pretty optimistic about labor's prospects.
Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, which was updated in 2004, predicts that a hydrogen-based energy regime will replace fossil fuels and this, combined with the rise of intelligent technology, will liberate people to enjoy added leisure and more satisfying types of work.
The authors of Nine Shift: Work, Life and Education in the 21st Century, say people will work at home with intranets replacing physical offices. They see the collapse of the traditional organizational pyramid and a shrinking inequality between rich and poor.
I don't know if these scenarios are likely. They certainly are not in the short run. But I know one thing for certain. If organized labor doesn't start to reassert itself and if the federal government doesn't start looking out for workers again, an economically secure middle class will become a relic of 20th century utopianism. The slide has already begun.
[Last modified September 2, 2006, 19:56:16]
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