Why are workers losing ground? For one, it’s the economy
James Carville coined the phrase in the 1992 election year, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and like microphone feedback the mantra has just gotten louder and stronger with the passage of two decades.
In his Labor Day message (English | Spanish), Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton and chairman of the Committee on Domestic Development and Human Development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, asserted, “The broken economy leaves too many without decent work, and over 12 million workers are looking for work but cannot find a job and millions more have actually given up seeking employment.”
This Labor Day, “our country continues to struggle with a broken economy that is not producing enough decent jobs,” he wrote. “Millions of Americans suffer from unemployment, under employment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet. This represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation.”
The fact is, it is difficult to find a sector of the economy where there has not been workforce downsizing, whether it be industry, government or even churches.
Along with the prolonged recession, and really predating it, is the decline of the American labor movement, which has resulted in a diminished voice by the American worker at the bargaining table.
At its peak in the 1940s, 33.5 percent of American workers were unionized, “now it is about 11 percent,” said Dr. Rob Moore, a professor of sociology and expert on labor law at St. Joseph’s University. He was also director of the former Comey Institute of Industrial Relations, named for Jesuit Father Dennis Comey, Philadelphia’s most respected labor-industry arbitrator a generation ago.
A problem today, he believes, is that labor law is very much tilted in favor of management and it is more difficult to organize. “If a worker attempts to organize, the employer often retaliates by firing the worker.”
If the matter goes to the National Labor Relations Board, Moore explained it might take years to decide the issue. The only penalty to the employer would be that the company would have to hire the rehire employee with back wages, a relatively inexpensive risk it would be willing to take.
The weak economy itself puts employers in the driver’s seat, Moore notes, because there are more people than jobs. “Whenever you have surplus labor workers are at a disadvantage,” he said. “I’m not suggesting management is bad, it’s just the reality.”
Outsourcing has also impacted jobs. “In a global economy, unless there are tax incentives to discouraging outsourcing, it is going to continue to happen,” he said.
Sometimes, with the best of intentions, the government contributes to the problem. For example the North American Trade Agreement, which created a free trade zone including the U.S., Mexico and Canada, had bipartisan support from Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton because it was supposed to create jobs. The opposite has been the case and now the U.S. is running large trade deficits with both of its NAFTA partners.
“Objectively there has been a loss of jobs,” Moore said. “We are not creating the kind of workforce to produce the goods.”
He does not believe the situation will improve for workers in the near future. “When the economy turns around the workers will be in a position to have more leverage,” he said.
Daniel Grace, secretary-treasurer of Local 830 Teamsters and a member of Assumption B.V.M. Parish in Feasterville also believes the situation is harder for workers today.
“Employers don’t have the resources they had and are watching the bottom line,” he said. His local, which primarily operates in the beverage industry, doesn’t have to worry much about outsourcing, since its focus is transportation. Still, in this economy, sales are down.
“Our local had 6,800 members in the late ‘70s,” he said. “Now we have about 3,800. When more people are out of work, less beer and soda is produced, and also most of the local breweries have shut down.”
Grace also believes things will not improve for workers until the economy turns around.
“That won’t happen until they stop exporting jobs and bring back some of those they exported,” he said. “Some of these companies have very fat bank accounts.”
Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer and a member of St. Leo Parish, Philadelphia.