Archive for the ‘Labor’ Category

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Occupational licensing on the rise; unions on the decline

February 9, 2011

A couple days ago, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal laid out a case that the licensing of occupations – that is, the regulation of various jobs by prohibiting people from performing them unless they have a government license earned by passing specific education, training, or testing requirements – has gotten out of control, restricting competition and raising prices for consumers. The article gives all sorts of examples of ridiculous occupations for which one must be licensed by a state government to legally practice, including florists, interior designers, hairdressers, and cat groomers. These kinds of stories are easy to come by, and they’ve set the blogs aflame (Matt Yglesias in particular loves this issue). Moreover, it’s all easy fodder for libertarians, the Cato Institute, or anyone who wants to build a case against regulatory policy writ large.

Here’s one aspect of the issue I find most provocative. Occupational licensing might be viewed as a form of worker protection that, unlike unions, is very much on the rise. According to a 2009 NBER study by Morris Kleiner and Alan Krueger, far more workers are currently in licensed occupations – nearly 30 percent of the labor force – than are members of labor unions – about 12 percent (though the overlap is considerable; 45 percent of licensed workers are also unionized). In an intriguing Reuters piece, Felix Salmon makes a pseudo-progressive case that licensed occupations are the service economy’s version of a unionized workforce:

…state licensing is part of what a post-industrial economy looks like: post-industrial employment is, in the aggregate, more highly skilled and more consumer-facing. And that requires a different regulatory apparatus than an economy that largely takes place on a factory floor. So it should come as no surprise that more and more workers require a license these days… [licensing laws] are, in a sense, a form of worker protection which is acceptable to Republicans — think of them as unions for people who hate unions.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of licensing as a whole – more on that later – but I am sure that it’s a poor replacement for unions. It’s true that working in a licensed occupation comes with a wage benefit – Kleiner and Krueger estimate it to be 18 percent, which is comparable or even slightly higher than the wage benefit of private-sector unions. But that’s where the similarities end, even in pure labor market terms. Licensed occupations and labor unions are qualitatively different in at least these ways:

  • Federal vs. state: Labor law regarding unions exists at the federal level and applies, at least theoretically, to all U.S. workers. Most of the action in occupational licensing is at the state level, and different states have vastly divergent licensing laws. This has obvious implications for labor mobility and…
  • Effect on wage differential: Unions narrow the wage differential between different workers in different places working the same jobs. Indeed, this is a major goal of labor unions and one that has been so challenged by the global economy – equal work for equal pay within a sector, across regions, across demographic categories, etc. means fewer opportunities for wage arbitrage (i.e. a “race to the bottom” in wages). Licensing has no such effect, and arguably might increase variance in wages within a sector.
  • Collective action: The type of collective action that licensing encourages is narrow and occupation-based, compared to the broader collective action that exists under progressive unions. (My historical knowledge is a bit shaky here, but I’ll still share this thought I had: one might compare licensed occupations to the guild-style unions of the AFL earlier in the 20th century, before its merger with the CIO: i.e., regressive forces that sought to protect its members to the exclusion of others in the working class. Indeed, this seems to be a major thrust of much of the criticism of licensing.)
  • Employee voice: Concomitant with the above, unions bring all sorts of benefits aside from simple wage gains. Grievance processes and other formalized conduits for employee voice are not at issue at all with licensed occupations. One might posit that skilled service workers have less need for such benefits; but I’ve yet to see a serious argument that workers should have less voice.
  • Competition between occupations: Also related to the collective action item, licensing occupations results in nasty competition between related occupations. Interior designers have been fighting to be licensed (and succeeded in Florida) in part because the licensed occupations of architects and engineers have encroached on their ability to do the work they see as theirs. Similar turf battles exist between, say, dentists and dental hygienists. The ultimate result is pressure for all occupations in a given field to become licensed lest they become extinct once “competing” professions become licensed first.
  • Type of workers protected: By its very nature, licensing protects skilled occupations. Kleiner and Krueger find that some 45 percent of workers in licensed occupations have at least an undergraduate college degree. Unskilled workers – the very workers for whom unions are most important – are not only left out of this labor-market institution, they are arguably actively hurt by it. Some folks (Dean Baker comes to mind) would likely argue that licensing is basically a kind of protectionism that favors the relatively wealthy and skilled segments of the working force at the expense of the relatively poor and unskilled – especially in an era of globalization in which “free trade” means exposing unskilled workers to global competition while simultaneously sheltering skilled workers.

That’s a lot of differences, but it’s the last one I find more stark. To be sure, not all skilled workers in licensed occupations are high-wage. But if one views unions as vehicles for the working class to better their lives and enter the middle class – rather than as narrow interest groups protecting already inflated wages for a small segment of workers – occupational licensing is clearly a poor substitute.

I’ll have more on this in a following post, once I decide more clearly what I think about licensing and its effect on quality vs. restricted competition. I should leave off with a full disclosure, which is that Morris Kleiner, one of the leading scholars on this issue, is a professor of mine and I’m currently enrolled in a very relevant class of his entitled “Public Policies of Work and Pay.” I believe, but am not sure, that Kleiner would agree with the thrust of this post; perhaps an update on that will be forthcoming as well.

Flying Whale

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Is the labor movement anti-freedom?

January 20, 2011

Today’s entertainment was a panel discussion entitled “Employer Reaction to Union Organizing,” in which a professor of labor policy, a labor and industrial relations historian at the University of Minnesota’s business school (of all places), the regional NLRB director, and an attorney representing management interests in collective bargaining all talked about the future of the Wagner Act and U.S. unions in general. I’m afraid that I don’t have a coherent set of thoughts to present about this panel, in part because it wasn’t the most coherent panel ever – but it was still fascinating and there are some tidbits to share and ponder over.

The most interesting recurring theme, albeit one that was more of an undercurrent than an explicitly discussed idea, was that of collective good versus individual rights. In one of the few times this was made explicit, the NLRB regional director mentioned that infighting among Democrats and Republicans within NLRB often revolved around rhetorical/ideological conceptions of whether or not collective bargaining infringes unnecessarily on the rights of individual workers.

In State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein discusses how the rise an individual rights-based set of employment protections, which grew out of the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and all the legislation from that time period dealing with discrimination, workplace safety and so on, has actually undermined the concept of collective action. By giving primacy to individual rights, the idea of collective action, in which a greater good takes precedence over individual freedom, can be painted as restrictive and frankly “un-American.” (Lichtenstein is careful to note that he is not denigrating all the achievements of these movements and pieces of legislation, but believes that it is important to note the trade-offs that were made, consciously or otherwise.)

I wondered whether it would behoove pro-labor folks to try to skirt this frame: instead of labor as a collective entity under which individual rights are subsumed, talking about it as a broad, inclusive social movement for the empowerment and betterment of the majority of people. The most interesting comment on this invoked the fact that labor and management alike were in favor of some form of collective bargaining in the Great Depression, when the problems of the U.S. economy were fundamentally seen as stemming from underconsumption. Giving workers higher wages and more buying power was seen as a solution to the problem of underconsumption, and a necessary precondition for the revival of the economy. Perhaps if labor today can be reframed as a movement aimed at increasing the buying power of the poor and the middle class and thus addressing growing inequality and many of our current economic woes, this might go some way towards fighting the perception of “big labor” as a parochial special interest (“unions are businesses,” the management attorney insisted) rather than a working people’s movement.

As I said, a somewhat incoherent set of thoughts and ideas, none of which are original, but something to chew on nonetheless. My background in labor history and philosophy is rather thin, and I’m very much enjoying putting in the effort to beef it up a little.

ADDENDUM: One neat thing I learned was that the local labor newspaper, the Minneapolis Labor Review, has a complete online archive of all of its issues since 1907 in searchable PDF form. Awesome!

Flying Whale

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USTR throws a bone to the Steelworkers

January 3, 2011

By petitioning the U.S. government to sue China at the WTO for its “unfair” clean energy subsidies, the Steelworkers gave the Obama administration the perfect opportunity to appear labor-friendly without actually having to be progressive at all, or challenge any entrenched domestic economic interests. I wrote about this impending disaster a few months ago, and late last month it came to fruition.

The United States on Wednesday accused China of illegally subsidizing the production of wind power equipment and asked for talks at the World Trade Organization, the first step in filing a trade case.

“Import substitution subsidies are particularly harmful and inherently trade distorting, which is why they are expressly prohibited under WTO rules,” Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in a statement. “These subsidies effectively operate as a barrier to U.S. exports to China.”

So not only is this an attack on efforts to move the world towards a greener economy, it’s also a broad attack on industrial policy in general (the sort of broad attack, of course, that is part of what the WTO is designed to do). Even more, it’s a political win for the centrists in the Obama administration, who can now point toward this as a supposedly pro-labor move while they simultaneously push heavy-handedly anti-labor policies like lobbying for the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

Great move, USW!

Flying Whale

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Just ink, no action: the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights

November 16, 2010

In 2007, Minnesota passed the Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights (PWBoR).

But congratulations aren’t really deserved.

Tonight, at an event sponsored by the Midwest Human Rights Coalition, I heard John Stiffin from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) talk about what has happened in the three years since the law’s passage.  His answer was appalling.  Basically, meat processing plants (called packinghouses here) have each been mailed an English poster of the PWBoR which they are required to post.  And–honestly–I think that’s the extent of it.

Let me start out by saying that I understand that the PWBoR was an unfunded mandate.  I understand that the DLI hasn’t been given many resources and I understand that real enforcement requires such resources.

But tonight I’m focusing in on the little things.  The inexcusable things.  The large impact-small cost failings that prevent policy changes from being as effective as they could be, even absent adequate funding.

  1. The poster isn’t included on the webpage with all other mandatory state posters from DLI for download or order.
  2. The poster wasn’t provided in any other languages, even though all other mandatory posters are.  Employers are expected to provide a translated version in the language of their workers.
  3. There has been no outreach to the Karen population, despite their recent and rapid concentration in meat processing centers such as Worthington and Albert Lea.
  4. Although the majority of packinghouse workers are from Mexico, Guatemala, Somalia, Sudan, or Southeast Asia, the single staff person was deliberately NOT hired from any of these ethnic groups to avoid the “appearance of favoritism.”
  5. There has been no collaboration with the staff person coordinating an nearly identical Bill of Rights in Nebraska.
  6. There is no proactive enforcement.  Compliance with the PWBoR isn’t integrated into OSHA’s compliance and a credible complaint is required to initiate an investigation.
  7. There is no protection for workers who file complaints, other than that the DLI “isn’t likely” to actively pursue information about their immigration status.

So maybe 6 and 7 aren’t really small cost criticisms.  But the others are.

And that’s just what I learned in a 20 minute rambling conversation.  And it doesn’t include individual-level complaints like Stiffin’s justification for not translating the poster into Spanish: Puerto Rican Spanish is different than Mexican Spanish, so translations are hard.  Right.  Because there is no such thing as Standard Spanish.  And we were really hoping the poster would be translated primarily in slang anyway.

Three years out, we should be talking about visa alternatives for workers who report violations (like the U-visa for survivors of domestic violence).  The PWBoR should be fully integrated in OSHA compliance.  And the coordinator should be able to articulate his outreach strategy to the workers, not just a one-time mailing to the employers.

Instead, we learn that there have been no complaints in three years.  Not a single one.  From one of the most dangerous industries employing some of our most vulnerable residents?  Despite John Stiffin’s reassurances, hardly proof of transformative legislation.

Jonas

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Steelworkers FTW WTF

October 14, 2010

I was in the middle of a busy period of life when a month ago, the Steelworkers submitted a 5,800-page petition urging the Obama administration to file a WTO case again Chinese subsidies for green technologies. I just found out about it today. I got really pissed off.

The way USW is going about this is completely backwards. They’re accusing China of engaging in “illegal practices that stimulate and protect its domestic producers of green technology, ranging from wind and solar energy products to advanced batteries and energy-efficient vehicles.” This is a double whammy. Not only does it reinforce the frame that domestic industrial policy is bad and legitimizes the use of the WTO to attack such policy (and why the hell would USW want to advance that frame?!), it also is a slap in the face for climate activists who would probably like nothing more than to see China, the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, invest in developing cleaner technologies.

To add insult to injury, this is all also completely hypocritical, since USW, as a founding member of the Blue-Green Alliance, would love to see massive U.S. investment in the domestic green economy. It’s a classic case of kicking away the ladder: denying developing countries the policy tools we want to be able to use ourselves.

What’s interesting is the Blue-Green Alliance statement on the USW petition. It’s decidedly lukewarm and avoids condemning China as an enemy engaging in “unfair practices.” I wonder what the politics behind the scenes here must have been like. In any case, I suspect this is a more useful position for progressives to adopt:

Today’s Section 301 petition filed by the United Steelworkers underscores the importance that the United States act quickly to take advantage of the job-creating opportunities of the clean energy economy. Every day America delays action is another day that China capitalizes on jobs created in the production of clean energy technologies that could and should be developed, manufactured, and installed in the United States.

This looks pretty different from USW’s condemnation of China using legitimate policy tools to promote their industries. There’s still the requisite vaguely nativist language, but instead of blaming China for doing what we should be doing, it puts the onus on U.S. policymakers to create our own industrial policy for the green economy – WTO legality be damned. This is a useful frame that USW has undermined: instead of thinking about what is and isn’t legal under the messed up WTO rules, we should be thinking about what policy goals we want to work towards, and if the WTO rules need to be changed to allow them, we should campaign for WTO reform.

(As an aside, interestingly, this week the Brookings/AEI green economy proposal came out, and even if it’s not something progressives can get behind, as Dani Rodrik pointed out, if this isn’t an industrial policy proposal, nothing is. And this coming from AEI!)

USW’s is exactly the kind of stance organized labor needs to not be taking in a modern world characterized by increasing interconnectedness and potentially imminent environmental catastrophe. We need a less provincial labor movement and more of a global working class consciousness in order to get anything done. Somewhere, Frances Fox Piven is saying, “I told you so.”

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How Labor is (Part of) the Problem in Building an American Left

October 11, 2010

Today I got to see Frances Fox Piven (distinguished professor of sociology and political science at CUNY; outgoing president of the American Sociological Association; author of this among many other things) give a talk with the above title and thesis. The argument was simple: organized labor in the United States is overly bureaucratized and institutionalized and run by extremely risk-averse leaders divorced from the rank and file. As a result, it has failed to adapt to the new realities of work presented by today’s globalized (and, in the U.S., deindustrialized) world.

Piven’s talk started with outlining three theorized sources of worker power: market power (ie when labor is scarce); political power (electoral influence); and strike power. Globalization, the argument goes, has eroded all three of these sources of power, although she also argued that the erosion of strike power has also been a product of unions shooting themselves in the foot. But, Piven says, the new global economy is a double-edged sword: it also presents brand-new possibilities for worker power, which the labor movement has completely failed to grasp.

The increasingly complex global chains of production, Piven claims, create opportunities for small pools of workers to exercise greatly magnified power over global capital. There are bottlenecks in the system where striking workers can shut down entire industries. But such actions would be extremely disruptive, and institutional labor would be unlikely to support them, and might even work to undermine them. Unions, she says, have become oligarchical, with leadership acting more out of self-preservation than the interests of the membership (much less the working class as a whole), and with damaging ties to the Democratic party as well as, in some cases, firms themselves.

Overall her argument seemed to be that unions have become too self-interested and parochial and what is really needed is a true working class consciousness. Her example was this: at a meeting between SEIU and COSATU (South Africa’s largest labor federations), the SEIU rep said, “We represent our members – that’s our job.” The COSATU rep replied, “We represent the working class. That’s ours.”

What troubles me is that both of the possible new pressure points that Piven highlighted – the above-noted bottlenecks in the global production chain, as well as the organizing potential of the huge new pool of place-based domestic service workers that cannot be outsourced – would seem to require pretty massive institutional support. It seems to me that workers striking to shut down a global production chain would be met with excessive and potentially lethal force, depending on where they were based. Such an action in the developing world would require a strong transnational movement to support them. And I would think that such an action in, say, the United States – a dock worker’s strike was her example – would still require some major institutional support. And how are domestic service and retail workers going to organize without union support? Perhaps I’m just having a major failure of imagination, but it seems that some pretty powerful institutional support is going to be needed if we are to overcome Wal-Mart’s anti-union strategies and actually organize those workers.

I posed this to Piven in the form of a slightly muddled question – if not from institutionalized unions, from where is the impetus for organizing going to come? – and I didn’t find her answer particularly convincing. She reiterated that such unions simply won’t support disruptive actions, and then basically stated that bottom-up movements from workers (both unionized and nonunion) are what’s really needed. She later used the immigrants’ rights rallies and the “Day Without Immigrants” of a few years ago as an example: the oppressed population organized themselves, spontaneously, without support from major institutions until the ball was already rolling.

I don’t know. That movement hasn’t really been sustained. How does the kind of sustained bottom-up movement needed for something as audacious as shutting down a global production chain happen without some kind of transnational labor movement or global class consciousness? Can you have a truly effective anti-systemic movement that arises without institutional support? Was the pre-9/11 anti-globalization movement an example, or does it fall apart under scrutiny given that it did enjoy support from some pretty institutionalized entities, despite its decentralized nature?

Piven emphasized that truly insurgent movements are largely unpredictable. They just happen when people get sufficiently pissed off about being oppressed, and simultaneously empowered because they’re talking to one another about it. So if these things are really so ad hoc and unpredictable, how does someone trying to organize for social change try to tap into these sources of discontent and resistance?

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Yes, it has to be regulation.

April 8, 2010

As it turns out, yesterday’s post about regulation has better versions everywhere.  Oh well.

But there is one element I haven’t seen elsewhere yet: why regulation is particularly important for industries like coal.

With other industries, we’ve got a major leverage point in addition to regulation: consumer pressure.

When Gap got in trouble for using (or allowing its subcontractors to use) sweatshop labor, they faced a consumer protest campaign.  Half of the news stories about Toyota’s recent woes centered on consumer response.

To make an Upper Big Branch metaphor, think of it this way: A local  restaurant is repeatedly fined for not having any smoke alarms or fire extinguishers, but the owner drags his/her feet because installing smoke alarms would require some electrical re-wiring.  A fire breaks out in the kitchen of one restaurant, spreads quickly, and kills 25 employees.

You would never go to that restaurant again.

The problem with coal companies–and other natural resource extraction companies–is that the link between the producer and the consumer is murky and convoluted.  Consumer won’t stop using Massey Energy coal to punish the company for their lax safety standards because consumers have no idea whether or not they’re using Massey Energy coal.

In the absence of pressure from the consumer, effective regulation becomes that much more important.

There are attempts–like the Dogwood Alliance’s Green Grades–to link natural resources to the retailers that buy them and then put consumer pressure on those retailers.  Undoubtedly, they offer an interesting alternative for the future.

But given how much trouble a university that wanted to stop buying mountain top removal coal had in pin-pointing the exact source of it’s coal, I’d say we’re a long way away from having anything but regulation for coal.

Jonas