Posts tagged: labor
Nicole Aschoff on the “Alt-Labor” movement, such as the Walmart and fast food strikes:
University of Colorado-Denver management professor Wayne Cascio has shown, through a comparison of Walmart/Sam’s Club and Costco, that low wages are not necessary for high profits and productivity. Costco employees average roughly $35, 000 per year ($17 per hour), while Sam’s Club workers average roughly $21, 000 per year ($10 per hour) and Walmart workers earn an average of less than $9 an hour. Costco also provides it workers predictable, full-time work and health benefits. However, contrary to popular assumptions, Costco actually scores higher in relative financial and operating performance than Walmart. Its stores are more profitable and more productive, and its customers and employees are happier.
Costco is not exceptional. Zeynep Ton, of MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has studied retail operations for a decade and argues that “the presumed trade-off between investment in employees and low prices can be broken.” “High-road” employers like Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and the Container Store have all found ways to make high profits and provide decent jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin’s research shows that a modest wage increase—bumping up the average annual salary of Walmart or Target workers to $25,000—would barely make a dent in big retailers’ bottom line, costing them the equivalent of about 1% of total sales. Even if a company like Walmart passed on half the cost of the increase to customers, the average customer would pay roughly $17 more per year, or about 15 cents per shopping visit. And, considering most low-wage workers spend nearly their entire paycheck on necessities, the industry would see a boost in sales ($4 billion to $5 billion more per year) to its own workers. Fast-food companies are highly profitable. McDonald’s alone saw profits more than double between 2007 and 2011. They could easily send some of these profits downstream to franchise owners and workers.
So why do most big retailers and fast-food chains insist on a bad-jobs or “low road” model? There are a few reasons. MIT’s Ton argues that labor costs are a large, controllable expense, and retailers generally view them as a “cost-driver” rather than a “sales-driver.” Store-level managers are pressured by higher-ups to control labor costs as a percentage of weekly or monthly sales. And because store managers have no control over sales (or merchandise mix, store layout, prices, etc.) they respond to pressure from above by cutting employment or forcing workers to work off-the-clock when sales dip. Another factor is financialization—the increasing dominance of finance in the economy. Firms feel a lot of pressure from Wall Street to be a Walmart and not a Costco. As Gerald Davis has argued, the rise of finance and the dominance of “shareholder value” rhetoric have resulted in an emphasis on short-term profits that register in increased share prices and big CEO bonuses.
Full Story: Dollars and Sense:
This is encouraging, but the possibility of fast food companies switching to “less-costly, automated alternatives like touch-screen ordering and payment devices” is not an idle threat. I’ve seen something like this setup in the food court at the JFK airport. But as I wrote earlier, cultural issues could stop this from becoming widespread — it’s not clear that customers will settle for robots and touch screens over human beings. But I sure wouldn’t rule it out.
Zygmunt Bauman interviewed on the subject of the “precariat”:
The notion of precariat seems quite general and vague to many people. Who are therefore the precarians?
The “general” and “vague” character of the notion of precariat bothers people accustomed to the division of society into “classes” and, in particular, to the phenomenon of “proletariat” or its idea, which the concept of “precariat” should, in my conviction (but not only mine), replace in the analysis of social divisions. In comparison to its successor, proletariat appears indeed almost as an emblem of the “specific” and “concrete”…
How easy it was, when compared to precariat, to determine its content and limits… But the fluidity of composition is one of the features defining the phenomenon of precarity; one cannot get rid of that fluidity without making the notion of “precariat” analytically useless. […]
What issues do, in your opinion, differentiate precariat most distinctly from proletariat? To what extent can one connect the two notions? And finally: is precariat a social class?
Well, I have serious doubts about that. I would prefer to call precariat a social category. The mere similarity of situation is not enough to transform an aggregate of individuals bearing similar characteristics into a “class” – that is, into an integrated group willing to pursue common interests as well as proceeding to integrate and coordinate actions stemming from that will. If workplaces of the times of “solid modernity” were, irrespective of the kind of products manufactured, also the factories of social solidarity, liquid-modern workplaces are, irrespective of their business objectives, the producers of mutual suspicion and competitiveness.
Full Story: r-evolutions: Far Away from Solid Modernity (PDF)
On the “quantified work” beat:
Researchers have estimated the average wage on Mechanical Turk is just $2 an hour, and some claim that’s an overestimate. Craigslist-style scams are common, in which requesters ask for up-front payments in exchange for later rewards, then disappear. If employers decide a completed task is unsatisfactory, they can decline to pay and still keep the resulting work. As a result, workers complain that many requesters decline work simply to get out of paying.
Experts estimate Mechanical Turk sees as much as $400,000 worth of transactions every day, but despite the money, Amazon has kept a hands-off attitude to the marketplace. Workers are left to fend for themselves.
But a new tool may give Turkers a secret weapon of their own. It’s called Turkopticon, a browser plug-in that aims to turn the tables on requesters by giving workers a chance to rate employers by reliability.
Guernica interviews Ai-jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance:
The project grew out of work within CAAAV, where many of the Filipina domestic workers who were organizing had worked in Hong Kong as domestic workers before coming to NYC. In Hong Kong, there are domestic workers from all over Asia, there are Indonesian workers, Filipina workers… It’s a multinational situation, and everyone works under a standard contract. There are set hours, guidelines, wages, and standards that are enforced. When the Filipina domestic workers came to the U.S., many were surprised to find so little protection and that in fact, domestic workers are excluded from a lot of labor law protections.
It was obvious to them that they couldn’t win better conditions alone, that they would have to develop a project with all domestic workers in the field. I had experience with multiracial coalition building and our organization already had that ethic, but the workers themselves also felt it was a natural next step to figure out a way to organize together as an entire workforce, which became Domestic Workers United.
Full Story: Guernica: The Caregivers Coalition
Interestingly Poo never uses the word “union” to describe the NDWA.
Mark Fisher describes the contemporary economy and the precarity it involves as a “Time War” in which more and more work of our time is dedicated to work:
To understand the time-crisis, we only have to compare the current situation with the height of punk and post-punk in the UK and the US. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of punk and post-punk culture happened at a time when cheap and squatted property was available in London and New York. Now, simply to afford to pay rent in either city entails giving up most of your time and energy to work. The delirious rise in property prices over the last twenty years is probably the single most important cause of cultural conservatism in the UK and the US. In the UK, much of the infrastructure which indirectly supported cultural production has been systematically dismantled by successive neoliberal governments. Most of the innovations in British popular music which happened between the 60s and the 90s would have been unthinkable without the indirect funding provided by social housing, unemployment benefit and student grants.
(via Bruce Sterling)
See also: Radical Atheism
David Sirota writes:
Big Industrial Ag pretends to go organic. PC behemoths mimic Apple products. Barack Obama goes to the right of the Republicans on civil liberties. Mitt Romney suddenly portrays himself as a left-leaning moderate on immigration. It seems no matter the arena, the most cliched move in corporate and political combat is to co-opt an opponent’s message, expecting nobody to notice or care.
But as inured as we are to this banality, it’s still shocking to see Corporate America transform the message of organized labor into a sales pitch for … Corporate America. Yes, according to The New York Times last month, that’s what’s happening, as new ads are “tapping into a sense of frustration among workers to sell products.”
One spot for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (read: the casinos) shows a woman climbing onto her desk to demand a vacation. Another for McDonald’s implores us to fight back against employers and “overthrow the working lunch.” Still another for a Coca-Cola subsidiary seizes on the stress of harsh working conditions to create buzz for a branded “Take the Year Off” contest.
The American Conservative, a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan, is running a report calling for an increase of the minimum wage to $10-$12 an hour, nation wide. The report wasn’t written by the magazine’s own staffers, it’s a report from written and originally published by a think tank called The New America Foundation, which I’ve generally associated more with progressive causes than conservatism.
I won’t go into the paper itself here, though I worry that small businesses might not be able to absorb that sort of brunt increase in wages, and I’m hardly a fiscal conservative. What’s interesting to me is this particle edge of the right that seems to be coming around to much of what the left has been saying for some time now (it reminds me of seeing liberals end up as conservatives during the Clinton years and following 9/11).
American Conservative has published a few other pieces that veer into this territory over the past few years, including an article saying that Hispanics don’t commit more crimes than whites, one on the revolt of the richand the co-architect of Reagonomics Bruce Bartlett’s article disavowing Reagonomics, saying that Paul Krugman was right and that the Republican Party has lost touch with reality.
Salon reports on a worker walk-out at McDonalds and chains such as Burger King, Domino’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Papa John’s in New York City. The workers, organized by New York Communities for Change, are demanding a raise to $15 an hour. Strikes are also being organized in Chicago, organized by Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago. This follows Black Friday strikes at Wal-Marts across the nation.
The article reports the huge challenges that these workers face in bring about change in their working conditions, but notes some interesting trends happening here:
The New York and Chicago campaigns evoke two strategies that have been long debated but infrequently attempted in U.S. labor. First, “minority unionism”: mobilizing workers to take dramatic actions and make demands on management prior to showing support from the majority of employees. Second, “geographic organizing”: collaboration between multiple unions to organize workers at several employers and win public support for raising a region’s standards through unionization. This campaign is also the latest example in which community-based organizing groups, which unions have long leaned on to drum up support for workers, are playing a major role in directly organizing workers to win union recognition.
Adam Davidson writes for the New York Times:
Throughout the campaign, President Obama lamented the so-called skills gap and referenced a study claiming that nearly 80 percent of manufacturers have jobs they can’t fill. Mitt Romney made similar claims. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that there are roughly 600,000 jobs available for whoever has the right set of advanced skills.
Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15. Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance. From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.
The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers. “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. “It’s basic economics.” After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages.
Good comment from someone on Hacker News:
I think it is important to note that the fast-food jobs with comparable pay are low level managerial positions, not entry level ones. You can start working for minimum wage at a fast-food job without any previous experience and/or skills. These jobs require very little training, and allow employees to add value almost immediately (and well before promotion to the $15-$20 an hour positions).
Contrast this to the skilled manufacturing jobs which require up front experience. Though many blue collar fields offer entry-level positions with on the job training, apprenticeships, and opportunity for advancement, this doesn’t appear to be common practice in manufacturing. Why not? I think the main reason is that it is very hard for a low skill worker to add value to a manufacturing company. There aren’t any comparable entry-level positions that allow the employee to learn while still being productive.
Because of this, hiring an unskilled employee for the purpose of training them is a huge risk, since it requires a significant investment. And since this industry is already very unstable with razor-thin margins, it’s not something many employers seem willing to do, which is unfortunate.
So maybe the solution is coming up with better training programs, so that manufacturers can hire new employees without taking on such large risks?
I wrote a long article for SiliconAngle on research into overtime and the 40 hour work week. It turns out that in most cases overtime and lack of sleep do more harm than good:
Facebook COO Sharyl Sandberg has kicked up a mini-controversy by admitting to Makers.com that she leaves the office at 5:30PM every day, and has done so for years. In the Valley, where work is a religion, leaving early is heresy.
Earlier this week “Jon” published The 501 Developer Manifesto, a call for developers to spend less time working.These calls for less time at the office are counter balanced by a recent talk by Google executive Marissa Mayer at an 92|Y event. Mayer dismissed the phenomena of “burn out” as resentment and boasted of working 130 hours a week at times.
Research suggests that Sandberg is probably the more productive executive, and those 501ers may be on to something. In a lengthy essay titled “Bring back the 40-hour work week,” Alternet editor Sara Robinson looks at the history of long working hours and reminds us why the 40 hour limit was imposed in the first place: working more than 40 hours a week has been shown to be counterproductive. It’s a relevant conversation for IT workers, who according to ComputerWorld average 71 hours of work per week.