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

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.

The work must be "decent." We all think we know what decent work means for us, as individuals, but how can we foster the conditions that create decent work for all? The "Decent Work Agenda" outlines four basic conditions: First, there must be an economic perspective that places job creation at the center of policy – policy that generates "opportunities for investment, entrepreneurship, skills development, job creation and sustainable livelihoods." Second, there must be protections for basic worker rights – the right to organize unions, to bargain collectively, and to enjoy representation on the job. Third, there must be safe working conditions and the ability to balance work life and family life, without fear of reprisal. Fourth, there must be what the Europeans call "social dialogue" and what we in the United States call … well, we don’t call it anything because we don’t have it any longer. It means civil discussions in which independent worker organizations (such as unions, works councils and the like) and employers hammer out policy-level agreements on the range of "decent work" concerns, often in consultation with government.

Although these four conditions seem simple, behind each of them is a complex program outlining the economic policies and political values that must dovetail to encourage a "decent work" environment.

The "Decent Work Agenda" has been central to the ILO’s work for over than a decade, and is widely discussed in other countries. It did not surface in Washington, D.C., however, until last week. The New America Foundation, as part of its Next Social Contract Initiative, rolled out a study called "Rethinking the American Social Contract" by Lauren Damme. It is, to the best of my knowledge, a first-ever attempt to place the "Decent Work Agenda" into the American context.

Why has it taken so long for this agenda to gain traction in the U.S.? As the study points out, U.S. policymakers remain wedded to an economic model that sacrifices social protections and accepts greater economic insecurity in exchange for what they hope will be "high income levels, a stable middle class, and the widespread perceived opportunity for upward mobility" Unfortunately, as most workers well know, the "American model" doesn’t work as intended. It began to break down back in the 1970’s when, with the exception of the highest earners, real wages began to stagnate, even as productivity reached new heights. Traditional retirement and medical benefits began a rapid retreat, and the middle class was put under unprecedented strain.

How about upward economic mobility? A May 2008 study by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project bluntly stated the "consensus view" among experts: the United States enjoys "much less intergenerational economic mobility than previously thought and appears to be less economically mobile than are many other industrialized countries." Canada, a country that has far more of the social protections characteristic of a "decent work" environment than does the U.S., is just one of the countries whose citizens enjoy now more intergenerational upward mobility than Americans.

It’s clear that the glaring weaknesses in our economic and social contract did not arise overnight. They are structural. Some scholars argue that America’s "social contract" has been "systematically dismantled," pointing especially to the dramatic weakening of the union movement, the traditional advocate for decent work. Indeed, one recent study finds that the decline in union density between 1972 and 2006 explains at least a third of this nation’s increase in inequality.

So, is the ILO on to something? Can a "Decent Work Agenda" help improve both this nation’s economy and the lives of its citizens? The New America study suggests that the concept is worth studying. In light of what we already know, it’s probably past time for us to reconsider the prevailing myths about the U.S. economic system, and to look for inspiration to successful models that are built around an agenda of "Decent Work."

- Randall Garton

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