Sunday, February 15, 2015

Insecure By Design

Question: What has been a defining feature of American socio-economic life for nearly all of its history, faded substantially for roughly two generations, and now has come back with a vengeance in the last two or three decades?

An insecure and vulnerable workforce. One that is compliant, scared, and with few workplace rights.

It is no accident that employee insecurity, those subject to dismissal without cause, has coincided with flat wage growth, a decline in union membership, the gradual disappearance of pensions, and the rise of the cynically-named "right-to-work" legislation.

Some will tell you that it is the inevitable result of globalization; it's a tough, competitive world out there, and hey, China. OECD data on worker protections in member countries belies this assertion. According to recent OECD publications, the United States has become unusually hostile to workers. As Les Leopold reports:
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranks 43 nations by the degree of employee protection provided by government. The 21 indicators used include such items as laws and regulations governing unfair dismissals, notifications and protections during mass layoffs, the use and abuse of temporary workers, and the provision of severance based on seniority. Countries are ranked on a scale of 0 to 6 with 6 going to those who provide the most legal protections for employees and 0 for those with the least. We're ranked #42 out of 43, meaning that we have among the fewest regulations to protect employees -- union, non-union, management, full-time and temporary workers alike.
The low level of worker security has always been the objective of most of those on the Right, whether they espouse neo-liberalism, laissez faire policies, or free trade. Enthusiastic support from the corporate world for cheap, compliant labor has varied over the generations, but has been especially strong in recent decades.

Through it all are those who may not be rich themselves, or may not run a corporation, or have well-developed views on economic doctrine, but still show a remarkable hostility to the "other": those not in the same tribe, religion, or race; those who are unacceptably different in thought, world view, and sexuality. A hostility that is directed against those who do not know their place and thus threaten the hierarchy.

This has been with us since colonial days. Both David Hackett Fischer, in Albion's Seed, and Colin Woodard, in American Nations, vividly reveal the brutal treatment that for centuries was meted out to the powerless; slaves, immigrants, indigenous Americans, indentured servants, sharecroppers, women, political subversives, the lower class in general.

The nature of employment, and of insecurity, have changed over the generations, though the working class remains the object of contempt. Workers are increasingly compelled to pursue jobs that not only offer low pay and no benefits, but are further away from home, are at odd hours, or, and this is the big one, are seasonal, temporary, or part-time. The result is a dystopian nightmare for millions of workers, some of them highly educated, who spend an inordinate amount of time, money and gas, to get to one part-time job, then must hustle off to another one. And you better not complain, because the boss does not need a good reason to fire you.

For a modern analysis of how the wealthy are currently reshaping the lives of the working poor and, increasingly, the middle class, read Jeff Faux's The Servant Economy, or Robert Reich's analysis of "the sharing economy," Faux focuses on how so many of the jobs now appearing are designed to serve the wealthy; day care--for the very young and the very old--dog walking, auto detailing, pool and lawn care, and many more. The pay is low, the benefits mostly non-existent.  No unions, no protection; you serve at the pleasure of the rich. Reich describes an economy where "human beings do the work that’s unpredictable – odd jobs, on-call projects, fetching and fixing, driving and delivering, tiny tasks needed at any and all hours – and patch together barely enough to live on."

No slavery, not technically, but highly constrained conditions, along with wages that are no longer coupled with productivity, mean that America, a country that once had high social mobility compared to other industrialized economies, now has among the worst. We are returning to the rigid, stultifying hierarchy of class, low wages, and pervasive, and often aggressive, religiosity that has long characterized the American South.

We are becoming Dixie.

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