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  • A "Decent Work" Solution To America's Jobs Crisis

    Written on July 21, 2011

    Decent work? Some days, it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? It also brings to mind an old saying, favored by the AFL-CIO’s late president, Lane Kirkland, that if work were so great, the rich would have kept it for themselves.

    But the truth is that work is one of life’s realities. For most people, it is the sole source of income. Work also can bring great personal satisfaction. Whether self-employed or working for a large multinational corporation, we all aspire to jobs that are interesting, safe, and pay a good wage with benefits – a job that can support a family, with something left over. Even these days, when people are happy to have ANY job, we still want THAT kind of a job: Decent work at decent pay.

    But "decent work" is much more than a daydream – it is a concrete social and economic policy issue that is at the heart of a decade-long campaign by a major United Nations agency, the International Labor Organization, (ILO). Since 1999, the ILO, with support from member governments as well as employer and labor representatives, has pushed the "Decent Work Agenda". This document declares that "work is central to people's well-being." Not only does work provide income, it can bring about broad "social and economic advancement" and strengthen "individuals, their families and communities", in other words, "decent work" creates "upward mobility" or as Americans often put it, "raises all boats."

    But these broader "social and economic" gains don’t come with just any work, the ILO argues.

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  • Wisconsin: Will It Be "Cool Hand Luke" Or "Norma Rae"?

    Written on July 13, 2011

    As the implications of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining begin to sink in, some local officials have eagerly embraced one possibility opened up by the new anti-bargaining law: replacing union workers with convict labor.

    This is not a new idea, at least not in Racine County. Last summer, budget problems led the county to try to replace unionized seasonal workers with prison labor. Teamsters Local 43 sued, arguing that the move violated the union contract. The judge sided with the union, but changes in the state’s collective bargaining law since that time have altered the legal picture, and Racine County administrators are taking another look at the idea.

    How has the new law changed things? Not only did it strip unionized workers of their right to negotiate over health care and retirement issues, it also removed their contractual rights to their jobs – in the sense that they can no longer claim that certain jobs fall within the scope of the union contract and should be filled by union workers. This gives state and local officials the ability to hire private contract workers and even prison inmates to take those positions.

    This is a "win-win" situation, according to Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig. While conceding that the idea is unpopular, he argued that "once people see things are still running smoothly, running efficiently, a lot of the fears will be alleviated." While the prisoners do not get paid for their work, they may earn time off their sentences, he said.

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  • What Do State And Local Governments Do?

    Written on June 30, 2011

    Those who wish to dismantle public services in the U.S. seem to share a general belief – accepted, to some extent, even by people who generally support public sector spending – that government is a massive, incompetent blob. At the federal level, I have always found this somewhat strange, since around two-thirds of federal spending goes towards Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and national defense, programs that are generally popular and widely regarded as successful.

    Survey data indicate that people do trust state and local government more than they do federal government, but the level of confidence is still not particularly high. Americans also appear generally unwilling to pay higher taxes to preserve public services (except for education), and most accept that state and local government is too large and much of it is superfluous. But when people are asked about specific programs, they tend to respond favorably. This suggests, among other things, that people may have general perceptions of "government" without full knowledge of all the roles government plays.

    So, I thought it might be useful to take a quick look at how public dollars actually are spent. After all, it’s our money, and it’s always good to keep track of how our elected officials are spending it.

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  • College Isn't Quite The (Self-Perceived) Middle Class Ticket It Used To Be

    Written on June 27, 2011

    In a previous post, I presented some simple data on “subjective class identification," which is the practice of asking people to place themselves within a class structure. The data show that, despite constant political rhetoric appealing the U.S. “middle class," more people actually consider themselves to be working class than middle class, and that this hasn’t changed much over the past thirty years.

    I also noted that there is even a fairly significant “working class presence” – about 25 percent – among the highly educated (those with a bachelor's or higher). This struck me as interesting, given the fact that having a college degree is sometimes called “the ticket to the middle class," and also given that the income advantage for college graduates – the “college wage premium” – is substantial (and it's actually increased over the long term). I found myself wondering whether the relationship between having a college degree and “gaining entrance” to the middle class (at least by one’s own judgment of his or her class position) had changed over time. In other words, when it comes to subjective class identification, is college less of a middle class “ticket” than it used to be?

    I couldn’t resist taking a quick look.

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  • Q: Do We Need Teachers' Unions? A: It's Not Up To Us.

    Written on June 21, 2011

    I sometimes hear people – often very smart and reasonable people – talk about whether “we need teachers’ unions." These statements frequently take the form of, “We wouldn’t need teachers’ unions if…," followed by some counterfactual situation such as “teachers were better-paid." In most cases, these kinds of musings reflect “pro-teacher” sentiments – they point out the things that are wrong with public education, and that without these things unions would be unnecessary.

    I’d just like to make a very quick comment about this line of reasoning, one that is intended to be entirely non-hostile. The question of whether or not “we need teachers’ unions," though often well-intentioned, is inappropriate.

    It’s not up to “us." The choice belongs to teachers.

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  • Who Doesn't Trust Unions?

    Written on June 16, 2011

    In a previous post, I noted that confidence in organized labor really hasn’t changed that much over the past 30 years, even though union membership has been declining steadily.

    This got me thinking about what kinds of factors (such as individual characteristics) are associated with being anti-union, and I decided to run a couple of simple, rough models to get an idea (keep in mind that this is a very quick treatment). As you might recall from the previous post, respondents in my dataset (the General Social Survey) were asked whether they had “hardly any," “only some," or “a great deal” of confidence in organized labor. In 2010, 60 percent said that they had only some confidence, 30 percent hardly any, and a mere 10 percent asserted a great deal of faith in unions. For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to those with "hardly any" confidence as “anti-union."

    I have to start with a few quick, optional-reading details about my data and analysis (read the notes in the graphs below if you want more information). Because so few people expressed “a great deal” of confidence, I collapse this category into the “only some” response, creating a two-category outcome variable measuring whether or not the respondent had “hardly any” confidence. The models I use (binary logit models) control for a variety of factors that might influence union attitudes, including marital status, party identification, income, race, parenthood, education, gender, age, year, labor force status, and whether or not one (or one’s spouse) is a union member. I limit the sample to respondents 21 or older, and to increase sample size, I pool data from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 surveys, for a total sample of 3,849.

    The results were a bit interesting.

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  • Middle Class Overvalues

    Written on June 13, 2011

    It is a staple of American politics that elected officials routinely frame their appeals to the "middle class." The idea is simple: Since the vast majority of Americans consider themselves members of the middle class, it makes sense to use this label as shorthand for "people like you." The practice of people locating themselves within a class structure – rather than being "assigned" to classes based on particular characteristics, such as income or occupation – is often called "subjective class identification."

    Now, I don’t know whether the daily use of the "middle class" appeal is smart politics (I assume it has been poll-tested and focus-grouped ad nauseum). But I can say that the underlying assumption – that virtually all Americans identify subjectively as middle class – is not correct. Or, more accurately, it depends on how you ask the question.

    If you give people a three-category class structure (upper, middle, lower) in which they must place themselves, a huge plurality opts for the middle. On the other hand, in the simple tabulation below, I demonstrate what happens when you add a fourth category to the menu of options – "working class." The data come from the General Social Survey (GSS) for 2010, and it’s a representative, unrestricted sample of all Americans over age 18. One of the survey questions is: "If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?"

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  • As Membership Has Declined, Have Attitudes Toward Unions Changed Too?

    Written on May 26, 2011

    The sharp decline in U.S. union membership over the past 30-40 years is well known, but does it reflect a change in attitudes towards organized labor? In other words, is decreasing union membership accompanied by decreasing support for labor?

    Of course, if attitudes have in fact changed, they might be both exogenous (membership declines because support decreases, leading to fewer unionization drives and less political support) as well as endogenous (support decreases because membership declines, as fewer people are exposed to unions and to the benefits of membership) to unionization levels. And, to some degree, attitudes and membership likely change independent of each other.

    In any case, it’s worth taking a look at how attitudes towards labor have changed over the past few decades. In the graph below, I present simple trend data from the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been administered either annually or semi-annually since 1972. Every year, the GSS queries respondents’ confidence in a number of major societal institutions, including organized labor. Granted, there is a difference between having confidence in unions and supporting them per se, but I think it’s safe to assume that the former is a decent indicator of the latter.

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  • Public Employee Unions And Voter Turnout

    Written on May 10, 2011

    During the recent debates over public employees’ collective bargaining rights, especially around the Wisconsin protests, I heard a few people argue that Republican governors are intent on destroying public sector unions, at least in part, because union members are more likely to vote – and to vote Democratic.

    The latter argument (union members are more likely to vote Democratic) is generally true (also here) – although the union "effect" on candidate/party choice is of course complicated. The former argument (more likely to vote in general) is also valid, but there is some underlying public/private variation that is both interesting and important.

    As is almost always the case, isolating the effect of a given factor (in this case, how being a union member affects the likelihood of voting) requires one to compare how this factor “operates” on people who are otherwise similar. For example, in a previous post, I compared public and private sector workers’ earnings. In order to uncover the “effect” of public sector employment on earnings, I used models that controlled for other relevant, measurable factors, such as education and experience. In doing so, I was able to (imperfectly) ensure that I was comparing public and private employees who were similar in terms of skills and qualifications.

    The same basic concept applies to voting.

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  • Unions And Pensions: Unfunded Culpability

    Written on May 4, 2011

    The Pew Center on the States just released an updated report on unfunded liabilities of state pension (and retiree health) systems. The figures are sobering. In FY 2009, state pension plans were funded at an average of 79 percent, meaning that they were short about one dollar for every five that projections suggest they’ll need to meet their obligations.

    While there’s no doubt about the troublesome implications of these findings, there’s a lot of disagreement as to causes. Lately, governors and state legislators (of both parties, but mostly Republicans), as well as dozens of commentators, have tried to lay the blame on the public sector workers, to whom the pensions are owed – seeking to restrict these workers’ collective bargaining rights, with the claim that this will help control the cost of benefits.

    The unfairness of blaming public sector workers – and their unions – should be pretty clear. By all accounts (also here), the primary reason that pension plans are in trouble is that the 2008 collapse of financial markets decimated the value of pension fund investments (the early 2000’s recession also seems to have played a role). Add to that an aging population (there is an increasing percentage of retirees as a share of the population, and they are living longer), as well as the failure of many states to make their required contributions during good times, and you have a fairly comprehensive explanation for the pension "crisis."

    Nevertheless, some have argued that public employee collective bargaining has exacerbated states’ pension problems – after all, more than their non-union counterparts, union members have tended to trade current salaries in favor of increases in deferred benefits. In that case, we might expect that states with higher densities in public sector union membership will have larger unfunded pension obligations. These differences need not be huge, but it’s reasonable to anticipate that they would be discernible. Let’s take a look.

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