3.9.16

PRODUCTIVITY PRESSURES.

Downsizing is a false economy.  But the road from the featherbedded blue industrial relations model to whatever comes next is long and winding.  And here, sorting through the stack of posts racked to revisit some day, comes one that got started around exam week in 2007, when Cold Spring Shops was recently relocated.  Here's a lament from The American Prospect's Paul Waldman, as the financial markets were teetering and the era of Hope and Change was about to dawn.  (There is a research opportunity, perhaps in a few more years when the passions cool, to identify precisely the role of such things as the 2005 transportation bill and the 2006 change of majorities in the House and Senate in fostering the financial crash that came.)

The lament starts in a predictable way.
Real wages are lower today than they were before the recession of 2001, and barely higher than they were thirty-five years ago. Health insurance is more expensive and harder to obtain than ever before. Manufacturing jobs continue to move overseas. The unions whose efforts might arrest these trends continue to struggle under a sustained assault that began when Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers in 1981, in effect declaring war on the labor movement.
It was easy, back in the day, for self-styled progressives to blame all of labor's difficulties on Ronald Reagan. That employment of steel mill workers, to use one example, fell from 450 thousand to around 150 thousand at the height of the Treaty of Pittsburgh suggests something more was at work.  And if you thought health insurance was expensive and hard to obtain, well, just wait for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  So it always is with false prophets.

Mr Waldman is on firmer ground when he writes of the ways Corporate America infantilizes workers.
Think about the jobs you've had. Where were you the most productive? Was it when you worked for a boss and an organization that treated you with respect, that valued your contributions, where you actually felt that you were part of something useful? Or were you more productive when you worked for a boss and an organization that governed by fear, that treated you with suspicion and contempt? Most adults have worked for the latter kind, while only some have had the good fortune to work for the former. And many if not most of them do just enough work to stay out of trouble and avoid the wrath of their superiors. That’s the spirit fostered in a workplace where employees are treated like criminals.
And yes, treating employees as an expense to be controlled and managed rather than as a participant in the creation and division of gains from trade makes little sense. (Let's leave for another day the deleterious effects of situational ethics and authenticity as possible root causes for corporate suspicion.)
If you are one of those left behind, you get called an "associate" instead of a clerk. In the place of paid vacation, you get company-sponsored activities whose absurdity can only make you more depressed. In the place of a union to represent you, you get assurances that the company considers you part of the "family." Your samples will be analyzed, your movements surveilled, your email read, all in the name of enhancing productivity and rooting out the bad apples. And should they decide your time is done, they will send a security guard to march you out the door in a ritual of public humiliation, lest you decide to pilfer a stapler as a memento of your service.

There is no labor section of the newspaper to tell the stories of the families devastated by layoffs and the workers ground down by the daily parade of indignities. But in the morally inverted world of Wall Street, what’s bad for workers is good for stocks, and the cable news "money honeys" will bare their gleaming teeth as they report the inevitable upward swing in share prices that accompanies a mass firing or benefit cut.
One of these days, the Invisible Hand is going to smack those investors and those companies that gave pride of place to short-term performance and shareholder value and liquidated the company.

But we're reading the Prospect, and the discussion turns, inevitably, to presidential politics.  (Perhaps it is the inertia of the commentariat and the court intellectuals that perpetuates, well past its sell-by date, the cult of the presidency.)
It would be positively revelatory to hear a presidential candidate truly speak to the conditions Americans find themselves in at work, to say firmly that companies that treat their employees like dirt are undermining our national spirit. They are the ones who have the ability to change out national conversation on topics like these. What if, instead of simply talking about "creating jobs," expanding health care, or increasing the minimum wage -- important goals all -- they actually attempted to speak to how people feel about their jobs? When candidates say the American dream is getting harder to attain, one often wonders if they understand all the reasons why that is so.

The Republicans certainly know the kind of workplace they admire. It's one in which power -- not values, principles, or fairness, but raw power -- determines how people are treated. They find deeply troubling anything that constrains employers from exploiting their workers to whatever degree they see fit. They despise unions precisely because they alter that balance of power in the worker’s favor, providing some check on the ability of organizations to intimidate and humiliate, underpay and overwork. But so far, Democrats haven’t articulated their vision of what a progressive workplace in the twenty-first century is supposed to look like -- and what they’re willing to do to create it. I’d be eager to hear.
Missing from the analysis then, and missing now: any notion of entrepreneurship as an alternative to working for someone else, with or without union rules that codify job descriptions.  Or, more crudely, any notion of telling the boss to take the job and shove it.  Here's a bit of Dean Dad's advice to an academician, stuck in adjunct hell.
Get some distance on your situation. After a couple of months, when your brain starts to snap back to its original shape, ask yourself again what you actually want. It may be that tenure-track job; if it is, then start organizing the short term around improving your chances of that. Or you may discover that, while you like teaching and you're good at it, stepping away isn't the end of the world. There are other rewarding and valid – and often more lucrative – ways to make a living.
That advice generalizes.  But the shape of a "progressive" workplace, whatever that means?  Emergent.

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