Stop Dumping All the Risks on Blue Collar Workers

June 5, 2018

I have been thinking about all the blue-collar workers who believed that Donald Trump would do a great deal for them.

We often talk about the risks that entrepreneurs face but capitalism does its best to outsource risk to blue-collar workers. If there are environmental problems, poisons in the air or water, blue-collar workers and their children will be the first to become sick – they are the canaries in the coal mines. But the irony is that they are also the first to be affected by any attempt to remedy the situation. Prohibitions may force their workplaces to shut down or lay them off.

Liberals often respond by saying that new methods will create jobs. But blue-collar workers have good reason to assume that any jobs created will probably be for other people. Liberals also argue that the proper method for creating jobs is with public works, renovating American infrastructure, etc. But who’ll get the infrastructure jobs? And even more important, no one has been able to promise those jobs. Obama tried but Congress blocked much of what he wanted to do. Trump promised a huge infrastructure program but he put it in the budgets of the states, not his own budget. In effect American politics has not been able to deliver on that jobs promise for the people whose jobs are at risk.

Other relief programs are more automatic: Except for Puerto Rico, we regularly protect people flooded by major storms even when they should have known better than to build on flood plains. The farm program, whatever its shortcomings, protects farmers with formulas that can be calculated in advance. Unemployment insurance is statutory but often grossly inadequate. Social security and Medicare have been reliable though they have become political footballs. Obamacare still exists despite Republican attempts to kill it. But you can’t feed and house a family on medical care. The earned income tax credit comes annually after April 15.

All of this suggests political winners and losers – we like some folks and we don’t trust others with whatever we might do for them. Government has not been willing to become the employer of last resort, so that there are always jobs and wages, although some candidates are urging it now. A negative income tax has been deemed too expensive. And Trump has spent huge tax dollars on enriching the super rich instead of reducing or eliminating the payroll tax in order to encourage hiring more workers for jobs that pay well. There’s lots that could be done if we have the will.

The result is that our political system has not been willing to care for workers. They are not the only ones our politics has left to hang in the breeze. Our unwillingness to insist on decent, honest and ethical behavior for everything from payday lending to mortgage loans, from manufacturing to toxic waste, leaves masses of people at risk, unable to protect themselves or their families.

We need statutes that protect all workers when employers reduce their workforce. Protections need to be reliable so that people don’t have to fear for their jobs when they demand safe working conditions and decent contractual terms that don’t shift all the risks to the people who are most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves. We need reliable worker protection so that people needn’t fear for their jobs when we demand safe products and safe byproducts of business activity. We need to rethink how we protect American workers so that they don’t become the losers whenever we try to improve the American environment and working conditions for everyone.

— This commentary posted by WAMC on their website on June 5, 2018 but the audio was pre-empted by the Pledge Drive. It was broadcast in its usual spot the following week on WAMC Northeast Report, June 12, 2018.

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Workers’ Rights Dishonored Again by the Supreme Court’s Conservative Majority

May 29, 2018

Once again, President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court demonstrates the Court’s and the president’s hostility to worker rights. In cases testing whether companies can require their employees to sign agreements that abandon any right to go to court or bring class actions, Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court sides with the companies. That prevents employees from pooling their resources when contemplating expensive litigation.

The Norris-LaGuardia Act, passed in 1932, protects workers’ right to collective action on labor issues:

the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless to exercise actual liberty of contract . . . , wherefore, . . . it is necessary . . . that he shall be free from the interference, restraint, or coercion of employers . . . in … concerted activities for … mutual aid or protection . . . .

The National Labor Relations Act, passed and signed in 1937, reaffirms that

[e]mployees shall have the right . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.

Both statutes were passed with the understanding that “the individual unorganized worker is commonly helpless” against employers. But the Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act, passed and signed in 1925, protects arbitration agreements. Usually, later statutes are held to overrule or limit earlier ones, not the other way around. So the Court decided that the later statute didn’t mean to limit the Arbitration Act. Of course, Gorsuch and the Court didn’t and couldn’t know that. What they threw at us was pure preference – anything that helps companies against their employees fits their labor policy. Gorsuch and this Court doesn’t read the law, as they like to claim; they make it. And they have been consistently turning against workers’ rights.

There was a time in this country when workers were completely dependent on their employers. They were required to live in company homes, buy from company stores, and were paid in scrip that was only honored by the company. Thus any attempt to leave left employees bereft of everything.

This Court will not be satisfied until workers have to sign away their right to seek better jobs, leave town, or buy their goods anywhere but the company store. There is a term for that, serfdom, and it is still practiced in some countries. When the Tsar of Russia freed the Russian serfs, the change there rivaled the end of slavery here. We needn’t go into all the other rights that serfdom gave the masters, like the right to violate the women. Serfdom stank. The claim that employers can get anything they want by putting it into a contract shreds all our rights.

We’ve been seeing that lately in the sexual abuse claims that have been made since the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Employers didn’t put those claims into the contracts but their right to reject applicants or fire people at will worked for a long time.

Law exists to protect people – except that the U.S. Supreme Court with Gorsuch solidifying its position doesn’t think ordinary people deserve any rights. In my view, it’s the Court that deserves none.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 29, 2018.


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