Monday, February 4, 2013

State of the union

Union membership in the United States is at its lowest point since the Great Depression. Today only a shade over 11% of the workers in this country belong to a union - and most of those folks work in the public sector.

Starting back in the 1970's, US employers began shipping jobs overseas trying to take advantage of cheap labor, lax environment laws and little or no regulation. Now economists will tell you that it's no big deal that manufacturing was taking flight because there'll be new jobs in the service sector (if you're old enough you've heard of the "post-industrial" society that we're becoming).

Those economists (or apologists for the existing economic system, as I like to refer to them) were half right. New jobs in the service economy were created. Unfortunately those new jobs paid a hell of a lot less than the jobs that had been shipped overseas.

Now we're told that manufacturing is making a comeback in the US. President Obama is taking credit for the  new manufacturing jobs that have been brought back to our shores. There's only one problem for the working people - the new manufacturing jobs pay less than the ones that left.

Part of this is because these new jobs are non-union. Most of these manufacturing jobs are being created in so-called right to work (for less) states. In those states with right to work laws, no one can be compelled to be a member of a union. What's the big deal, you say? Shouldn't workers have the right to choose?

Well, why would anyone choose to pay union dues when they can ride for free on the backs of the union members? If the union represents enough workers it can negotiate contracts on hours, wages and working conditions on behalf of all the workers - whether they belong to the union or not.

The workers are subject to constant propaganda from employers and politicians about how unions are destroying the economy. The purpose is to dissuade workers from joining together to fight for better pay. Besides, who was it that made the decisions to send the jobs overseas in the first place? Certainly not the union members.

The other problem facing workers is the "permanent temporary" workforce. More and more employers are relying on temp agencies to fill positions. For that, the employers pay the staffing company a fee and the staffing company pays the workers and provides them benefits. This creates a two-tiered work structure in which some workers are full-time with benefits and others are part-time or contract workers without benefits.

The result is downward pressure on wages. And therein lies the problem.

As a result of the economic collapse millions of workers lost their jobs. Some have yet to find work. Others have taken new jobs that pay a fraction of what they were making. So, while corporations are sittings on vast stores of cash, workers don't have enough money to cover their bills. And, if they can't cover their bills, how on earth are they to afford the shiny gadgets being pushed on us everyday?

This is the root cause of our economic malaise. And so long as those who pull the strings continue to drive down wages the problems will only get worse.

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