Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Category Archives: Organizing

Why Unions Matter

I write an occasional column for Street Roots, a wonderful Portland, Oregon weekly newspaper that is sold on the streets by homeless vendors, who keep 75 percent of the dollar cost of each Friday issue.

As the paper explains:

Street Roots creates income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty by producing a newspaper and other media that are catalysts for individual and social change.

In addition to income and an opportunity for meaningful street conversations, Street Roots also provides venders, who number in the hundreds, a safe place with “access to computers, a mailing address, hygiene items, socks, fresh water, coffee, and public restrooms.”  It also maintains “a vendor health fund to support vendors when they are sick or in an extreme crisis.”

The paper does outstanding reporting on local, national, and even international issues; it has 20,000 readers throughout the region.  Check it out.

Here is my latest piece, published June 9, 2017.

The attack on labor unions – and why they matter

Fewer workers are in unions now than in 1983, the earliest year in the Bureau of Labor Statistics series on union membership. In 1983 there were 17.7 million, 20.1 percent of the workforce. In 2016 the number had fallen to 14.6 million, or 10.7 percent of the workforce. While union membership rates in Oregon have been above the U.S. average, they have also followed the national trend, falling to 13.5 percent in 2016.

This decline in unionization is largely the result of a sustained corporate directed and, in many ways, government-aided attack on unions. Its success is one important reason why corporate profits have soared and most people have experienced deteriorating working and living conditions over the past decades.

Improving our quality of life will require rebuilding union strength. And, although rarely mentioned by the media, things are starting to happen in Portland. Over the last few years new unions were formed and/or new contracts signed by workers at our airport, zoo, K-12 public schools, colleges and universities, parks and recreation centers, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and office buildings.

The attack on unions 

Not long after President Reagan declared the 1981 air traffic controllers strike illegal and fired 11,000 air traffic controllers, corporations began illegally opposing union organizing efforts by aggressively firing union organizers.

According to studies based on NLRB records, the probability of a union activist being illegally fired during a union organizing campaign rose from about 10 percent in the 1970s to 27 percent over the first half of the 1980s. Since then it has remained around 20 percent. Illegal firings occurred in approximately 12 percent of all union election campaigns in the 1970s and in roughly one out of every three union election campaigns over the first half of the 1980s. They now occur in approximately 25 percent of all union election campaigns.

It is a violation of U.S. labor law for an employer to “interfere with, restrain or coerce” employees who seek to exercise their right to unionize. However, the law is so weak that many employers willingly disregard it and accept the consequences in order to stymie union organizing efforts.

Many companies also try to undermine union organizing campaigns by illegally threatening to shut down or move operations if workers vote to unionize. One mid-1990s study found that more than 50 percent of all private employers made such a threat. The acceleration of globalization in the following decades, thanks to government support, has made growing numbers of workers fearful of pursuing unionization, even without an explicit threat by management.

Although not the most important factor, unions also have some responsibility for their decline. Union leaders have often been reluctant to aggressively organize new sectors; encourage new leadership from people of color, women, and other marginalized groups; promote rank and file democracy in decision-making and organizing; and vigorously defend the rights of their members to live in healthy communities as well as work in safe workplaces.

Taking all this into account, it is no wonder that the share of workers in unions has declined.

The union difference 

The decline in union strength matters. Here are a few examples of what unions still deliver:

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “the union wage premium – the percentage-higher wage earned by those covered by a collective bargaining contract, adjusted for workers’ education, age and other characteristics – is 13.6 percent overall.”

Unionized workers are 28.2 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance and 53.9 percent more likely to have employer-provided pensions.

Working women in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men, compared to non-union working women who receive only 78 cents on the dollar for every dollar paid to non-union working men. This union wage premium is significant for unionized working women regardless of race and ethnicity.

Looking just at Oregon, the Oregon Center for Public Policy found that “union representation boosts the wages of Oregon’s lowest paid workers by about 21 percent, while middle-wage workers enjoy an increase of about 17 percent. Even the highest paid workers benefit from unionizing, with a 6 percent increase to their wages.”

Studies also show that strong unions force non-union employers to lift up the wages and improve the working conditions of their own employees for fear of losing them or encouraging unionization.

More generally, unions provide workers with voice and the means to use their collective strength to gain job security and say over key aspects of their conditions of employment, including scheduling and safety. These gains are significant in our “employment at will” economy where, without a union, employers can fire a worker whenever they want and for whatever reason, subject to the weak protections afforded by our labor laws.

Why unions still matter 

Two widely respected labor economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the growth in the number of workers with so-called “alternative work arrangements,” which they “defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers.” They found that the percentage of U.S. workers with such alternative work arrangements rose from 10.1 percent of all employed workers in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015. But their most startling finding was that “all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.”

Large corporations are driving this explosion in irregular and precarious work by applying the same strategy here in the U.S. that they have long used in the third world. They are increasingly outsourcing to smaller non-unionized firms the jobs that were once done by their own in-house workers. This allows these large corporations to escape paying many of those who “work for them” the wages and benefits offered to their remaining employees. Instead, their salaries are paid by smaller firms, whether they be independent businesses, temporary work agencies, or franchise owners, or in more extreme cases so-called independent contractors. And because these second-tier smaller businesses operate in highly competitive markets, with substantially lower profit margins than the corporations they service, these outsourced workers now receive far lower salaries with few if any benefits and protections.

As the Wall Street Journal describes, “Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people. The outsourcing wave that moved apparel-making jobs to China and call-center operations to India is now just as likely to happen inside companies across the U.S. and in almost every industry.”

At most large firms, 20 percent to 50 percent of the total workforce is now outsourced. This includes big and profitable U.S. companies like Google, Bank of America, Verizon, Procter & Gamble and FedEx.

In sum, companies aren’t going to willingly offer us jobs that pay a living wage, provide opportunities for skill development, and afford the security necessary to plan for the future. We are going to have to fight for them. And the strength of unions will be critical in that effort. So, the next time you hear about a unionization campaign or union organized workplace action— support it. You will be helping yourself.

The Problem Of Hunger In The US

Food insecurity is a major problem in the US.   The food stamp program–renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008–helps, but that program is now threatened by the Trump administration.  An organization of the food insecure, echoing the Councils of the Unemployed of the 1930s, may well be needed if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing hunger.

The extent of food insecurity  

The federal government measures food insecurity using a yearly set of questions that are part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS).  The questions asked, as a Hamilton Project study on food insecurity and SNAP explains, are about:

households’ resources available for food and whether adults or children in the household adjusted their food intake—cutting meal size, skipping meals, or going for a day without food—because of lack of money for food. A household is considered to be “food insecure” if, due to a lack of resources, it had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of its members. The more-severe categorization of “very low food security” status describes those food-insecure households in which members’ food intake was reduced and their normal eating patterns disrupted at some point during the year because of a lack of resources for food. Food insecurity and very low food security are measured at the household level, though questions about adults and children are asked separately.

Officially, 12.7 percent of US households were food insecure in 2015.  Five percent were very low food secure.

The extent of food insecurity is significantly greater in households with children under 18.  As we see below, 16.6 percent of all households with children suffered from food insecurity in 2015.  In more than half of those households, the adults were able to shelter their children.  However, both children and adults were food insecure in 7.8 percent of all households with children.

Food insecurity trends

Food insecurity is a problem in the United States even during periods of economic expansion.  As the following chart shows, more than one in ten households suffered from food insecurity during the growth years of 2001 to 2007.  The percentage of households experiencing food insecurity spiked with the start of the Great Recession and was slow to decline.  Although it is now falling, it is unclear whether it will return to pre-recession levels.

And, not surprisingly, non-white households are far more likely to experience food insecurity than white households.

It is also important to recognize that annual rates of food insecurity tend to minimize the true extent of the problem.  That is because households tend to move into and then out of food insecurity over time.  In other words, it is often a temporary problem.  Thus, many more families will experience food insecurity over a period of time than suggested by the annual numbers.  Of course, even one year of food insecurity can have serious health consequences.

As the Hamilton Institute study notes:

Annual rates of food insecurity mask the extent of the food insecurity problem. Using the Current Population Survey, we can follow large numbers of households across two consecutive years, allowing us to compare food security status over time. In consecutive years during the post-recession period 2008–14, over 24 percent of households with children experienced food insecurity in one or both years: 9 percent of household experienced food insecurity in consecutive years, and an additional 15 percent of households experienced food insecurity in only one of the two years.

SNAP 

SNAP is one of the most important federal responses to food insecurity. To qualify for food stamps, a household needs to earn at or below 130% of the poverty line—or about $26,000 or less a year for a family of three. As of May 2017, 42.3 million people were receiving food stamps. Without the SNAP program, many more people would be experiencing food insecurity.

The following figures show the rise in the number and percentage of people receiving food stamps, and the average monthly food stamp benefit.  The growth in the number of food stamp recipients over the 2001 to 2007 period of economic growth reflects the explosion in inequality and weak job growth.  And the need for food assistance exploded with the Great Recession and has remained high because of the weak economic recovery that has followed.

The challenge ahead

Determined to slash all non-military discretionary programs, President Trump’s proposed budget calls for cutting almost $200 billion over the next decade from the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program.  That is a cut of approximately 25 percent.

With weak job growth and stagnant wages likely in the years ahead, any cut to the SNAP budget will mean a new spike in hunger, especially for children.  One has to wonder when people will reach their limit and begin to organize and fight back.

Those struggling with food insecurity might well take inspiration from the work of the unemployed councils of the 1930s.  These councils provided a basis for the unemployed to resist rent increases and evictions, as well as fight for public assistance, unemployment insurance, and a public works program.  The councils also strongly supported union organizing efforts, ensuring that the unemployed respected union picket lines.  In return, many unions supported the work of the councils.

The unemployed in the 1930s eventually recognized that their situation was largely the result of the dysfunctional workings of the economic system of the time and they organized to defend their rights and change that system.  Households experiencing hunger today need to develop that same understanding about the root cause of their situation and respond accordingly.

We Need To Once Again Take “The Working Class” Seriously

The great majority of working people in the US have experienced tough times over the last few decades.  And all signs point to the fact that those in power are committed to policies that will mean a further deterioration in majority living and working conditions.

One obvious response to this situation is organizing; working people need strong organizations that are capable of building the broad alliances and advancing the new visions necessary to challenge and transform existing political-economic relationships and institutions. Building such organizations requires, as a first step, both acknowledging the existence of the working class and taking the concerns of its members seriously.

Unfortunately, as Reeve Vanneman shows in a Sociological Images blog post, writers appear to have largely abandoned use of the term “working class.”  One indicator is the trend illustrated in the chart below, which is derived from Google Books’ Ngram Viewer.  The Ngram Viewer is able to display a graph showing how often a particular word or phrase appears in a category of books over selected years.  In this case, the chart below shows how often the two-word phrase “working class” (a bigram) appears as a percentage of all two word phrases used in all books written in American English.

google

As Vanneman explains:

a Google ngram count of the phrase “working class” in American books shows a spike in the Depression Thirties and an even stronger growth from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. But after the mid-1970s, there is a steady decline, implying a lack of discussion just as their problems were growing.

A similar overall trend emerges from “a count of the frequencies of ‘working class’ in the titles or abstracts of articles in the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review.”  As we see in the chart below, there was a rapid growth in the use of the phrase from the late 1950s through most of the 1960s, followed by a slow but steady decline until the mid-1980s, and then, after a brief resurgence, a dramatic fall off in its use.

sociology

As Vanneman comments: “These articles on the working class were not insignificant; even through the 21st century, the authors include a number of ASA presidents. But overall, working-class issues seem to have lost their salience, as if even American sociology was also telling them that they didn’t matter.”

While there is no simple relationship between working class activism and scholarship on the working class, the synergy is important.  Now is the time to take working class issues seriously.  Given current trends, we desperately need a revival of labor activism and the development of labor-community alliances around issues such as housing, health care, discrimination, and the environment.  And we also need new scholarship that shines a light on as well as engages the challenges of our time from a working class standpoint.

Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Labor Unity

There was a lot of talk this election season about the worsening economic conditions of White males.

The chart below, from an Economic Policy Institute report by Alyssa Davis and Elise Gould titled Closing the Pay Gap and Beyond, shows the hourly median wage growth for workers of different gender, race, and ethnicity compared with the economy-wide growth in productivity over the period 1979 to 2014.  As we can see, White male workers do indeed have something to complain about; in contrast to worker productivity, which grew by 62.7 percent over the period, their hourly median wage actually fell by 3.1 percent.

all-worker-decline

But, all this talk about White male workers distracts from the fact that Hispanic and Black men, who on average make significantly less than White men, suffered an even greater decline in their respective hourly median wages.  Thus, relatively speaking, White male workers have far less to complain about than Black and Hispanic male workers.

At the same time, the chart does show positive gains in hourly median wages for women, with White women enjoying the largest gain over the period, 30.2 percent.   However, these gains need to be put in perspective.

As the chart below shows, the earnings gap between men and women remains significant.  The gender gap narrowed over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, partly because women’s wages rose and partly because men’s wages fell.  However, the size of the gap has not changed much since.  In fact, the most striking thing is that the median hourly wages of both men and women have been in decline.

gender-gap

It is also worth noting, as we can see in the chart below, that this gender gap exists at all levels of education, and in fact grows with the level of education.

education-and-gender

And, just as with men, it is important to recognize that the experience of women workers is also shaped by race and ethnicity. As we saw in the first chart above, White women did far better than Black and Hispanic women over the period 1979 to 2014.  And they did so from a higher earnings base: while White women earn approximately 81.8 percent of the White male median wage level, the corresponding percentage for Black women is 65.1 percent, and for Hispanic women only 58.9 percent.  Clearly, there is not a lot for women to cheer about either, despite their relatively better wage performance over the entire period.

Unfortunately, the media focus on White males and their economic difficulties works to weaken the unity, and by extension power, of the labor movement.  One reason is that it marginalizes non-White workers by making them invisible, despite the fact that they confront, as we saw above, far worse economic conditions than White males. Another is that it divides the labor movement into competing groups, setting up a gender conflict in which White male losses are explained by female gains, even though both male and female hourly median wages are falling.

The fact is that the great majority of workers are struggling, even during this so-called period of economic recovery.  As the chart below shows, while productivity grew by 62.7 percent over the period 1979 to 2014, the overall hourly compensation (which includes both wages and benefits) of a typical worker grew by only 8 percent.  This growing gap between productivity and compensation, created by corporate and state policies, helps to explain why profits and the income of the wealthy are growing so rapidly while worker earnings stagnate at best.

pay-and-productivity

There is no shortcut to confronting and reversing existing trends.  Only a strong united labor movement can anchor the broader movement for change that we need.  Building that unity requires developing a shared understanding of the way discrimination produces pay gaps based on gender, race, and ethnicity, gaps that disproportionately benefit corporate bottom lines.  It also requires prioritizing struggles that help to close those gaps in ways that strengthen worker power in both the workplace and community.

The authors of the EPI study provide a useful list of demands that point in the right direction:

Besides doing everything we can to eradicate labor market disparities based on gender and race, to maximize women’s economic security, we should pursue policies that spur broad-based wage growth by giving workers more leverage to secure higher pay. These policies include bringing about full employment, restoring the right to collective bargaining, raising the minimum wage and tipped minimum wage, guaranteeing access to paid sick leave and paid family leave, providing accessible and high-quality child care, ensuring that hourly workers can get the number of hours they need and curtailing employers’ irregular scheduling practices, increasing retirement security, updating  and enforcing labor standards (e.g., raising the overtime salary threshold and cracking down on wage theft), enacting comprehensive immigration reform and providing undocumented workers a path to citizenship, and strengthening the social safety net.

The new Trump administration has made clear its anti-worker agenda and determination to break unions.  Our response has to include serious efforts to revitalize the trade union movement and build popularly-led labor-community alliances in support of good jobs, a strong and accountable public sector, and sustainable and healthy cities.  Cutting through the misinformation about the divisions within and conditions facing US workers is a small but necessary step.

The Devastating Transformation Of Work In The US

Two of the best-known labor economists in the US,  Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, recently published a study of the rise of so-called alternative work arrangements.

Here is what they found:

The percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements – defined as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers – rose from 10.1 percent [of all employed workers] in February 2005 to 15.8 percent in late 2015.

That is a huge jump, especially since the percentage of workers with alternative work arrangements barely budged over the period February 1995 to February 2005; it was only 9.3 in 1995.

But their most startling finding is the following:

A striking implication of these estimates is that all of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements. Total employment according to the CPS increased by 9.1 million (6.5 percent) over the decade, from 140.4 million in February 2005 to 149.4 in November 2015. The increase in the share of workers in alternative work arrangements from 10.1 percent in 2005 to 15.8 percent in 2015 implies that the number of workers employed in alternative arrangement increased by 9.4 million (66.5 percent), from 14.2 million in February 2005 to 23.6 million in November 2015. Thus, these figures imply that employment in traditional jobs (standard employment arrangements) slightly declined by 0.4 million (0.3 percent) from 126.2 million in February 2005 to 125.8 million in November 2015.

Take a moment to let that sink in—and think about what that tells us about the operation of the US economy and the future for working people.  Employment in so-called traditional jobs is actually shrinking. The only types of jobs that have been growing in net terms are ones in which workers have little or no security and minimal social benefits.

Figure 2 from their study shows the percentage of workers in different industries that have alternative employment arrangements.  The share has grown substantially over the last ten years in almost all of them.  In Construction, Professional and Business Services, and Other Services (excluding Public Services) approximately one quarter of all workers are employed using alternative work arrangements.

distribution

The study

Because the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not updated its Contingent Work Survey (CWS), the authors contracted with the RAND institute to do their own study.  Thus, Rand expanded its own American Life Panel (ALP) surveys in October and November 2015 to include questions similar to those asked in the CWS.   They surveys only collected information about the surveyed individual’s main job.  And, to maintain compatibility with the CWS surveys, day laborers were not included in the results.  Finally, the authors only included information from individuals who had worked in the survey reference week.

People were said to be employed under alternative work arrangements if they were “independent contractors,” “on-call workers,” “temporary help agency workers,” or “workers provided by contract firms.  The authors defined these terms as follows:

“Independent Contractors” are individuals who report they obtain customers on their own to provide a product or service as an independent contractor, independent consultant, or freelance worker. “On-Call Workers” report having certain days or hours in which they are not at work but are on standby until called to work. “Temporary Help Agency Workers” are paid by a temporary help agency. “Workers Provided by Contract Firms” are individuals who worked for a company that contracted out their services during the reference week.

The results in more detail

All four categories of nonstandard work recorded increases:

Independent contractors continue to be the largest group (8.9 percent in 2015), but the share of workers in the three other categories more than doubled from 3.2 percent in 2005 to 7.3 percent in 2015. The fastest growing category of nonstandard work involves contracted workers. The percentage of workers who report that they worked for a company that contracted out their services in the preceding week rose from 0.6 percent in 2005 to 3.1 percent in 2015.

Table 4 shows the percentage of workers in different categories that are employed for their main job in one of the four nonstandard work arrangements.  The relevant comparisons over time are with the two CPS studies and the Alternative Weighted results from the Rand study.

4b

Here are some of the main findings:

There is a clear age gradient that has grown stronger, with older workers more likely to have nonstandard employment than younger workers.  In 2015, 6.4 percent of those aged 16 to 24 were employed in an alternative work arrangement, while 14.3 percent of those aged 25-54 and 23.9 percent of those aged 55-74 had nonstandard work arrangements.

The percentage of women with nonstandard work arrangements grew dramatically from 2005 to 2015, from 8.3 percent to 17 percent.  Women are now more likely to be employed under these conditions than men.

Workers in all educational levels experienced a jump in nonstandard work, with the increase greatest for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.  “Occupational groups experiencing particularly large increases in the nonstandard work from 2005 to 2015 include computer and mathematical, community and social services, education, health care, legal, protective services, personal care, and transportation jobs.”

The authors also tested to determine “whether alternative work is growing in higher or lower wage sectors of the labor market.”  They found that “workers with attributes and jobs that are associated with higher wages are more likely to have their services contracted out than are those with attributes and jobs that are associated with lower wages. Indeed, the lowest predicted quintile-wage group did not experience a rise in contract work.”

The take-away

The take-away is pretty clear.  Corporate profits and income inequality have grown in large part because US firms have successfully taken advantage of the weak state of unions and labor organizing more generally, to transform work relations.  Increasingly workers, regardless of their educational level, find themselves forced to take jobs with few if any benefits and no long-term or ongoing relationship with their employer.  Only a rejuvenated labor movement, one able to build strong democratic unions and press for radically new economic policies will be able to reverse existing trends.

The Importance Of Solidarity

As we begin to take stock of the political moment in the United States and strategize ways to build a movement strong enough to resist the policies of the Trump administration and confident enough to project a new social vision, it is important to learn from the efforts of people in other countries facing similar challenges.  South Korea for example.

Park Geun-hye, the current president of South Korea, took office in February 2013.  The daughter of Park Chung-Hee, the brutal military dictator who ruled the country from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, Park Geun-hye presented herself as a “soft” conservative during the presidential campaign.  But once elected she moved quickly and decisively, with the support of the country’s security forces, to expand the neoliberal and anti-democratic policies of her conservative predecessor and crush any opposition.

The consequences of her rule have been devastating for the great majority of Koreans.  Some highlights: her deregulation of health and safety standards led directly to the sinking of a ferry carrying over 400 students; more than 300 of whom drowned.  Her labor initiatives include laws to increase the precariousness of work and difficulty of unionization, and lower the wages of regular workers.  Her education policies require that public school teachers use only state written history books.  Her militarist policies include the construction of a new naval base for US warships on Jeju island, over the objections of the residents; an intensification of war games directed against North Korea; the closure of the Kaesong industrial zone; and the welcoming of a US THAAD anti-missile battery aimed at China and Russia on South Korean soil.  And she has advanced her policies by outlawing demonstrations, arresting hundreds of union leaders, and dissolving a political party.

Korean social movements, led by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, have responded to this rightward movement with ever larger demonstrations, despite the jailing of many labor leaders.  Now, the balance of forces appears to be decisively shifting against the government.  The reason: new revelations point to the fact that many of Park’s policies were made either in consultation with or in response to the dictates of an unelected confidant, the daughter of a now deceased cult leader.

As the website Zoom in Korea explains:

Since late October, when news broke of the government corruption scandal involving South Korean president Park Geun-hye, South Korean citizens have demanded the removal of Park and her administration from office. Last week on November 5, close to 200,000 people took to the streets of Seoul to demand her resignation. A diverse range of people from different social enclaves of South Korean society joined together to send a common message to their government – “Park Geun-hye, step down.”

Throughout the streets of Seoul, one could see recently politicized high school students marching side by side with elderly folks who had experienced past revolutionary moments in South Korean history.

Here is a short clip which shows what it looks like when 200,000 people crowd the streets of Seoul to demand change.

For more on the growing movement in South Korea, its demands and its challenges, read the rest of the Zoom in Korea article here.

 

We are not alone in facing powerful dictatorial rightwing political forces.  As we develop our own response here in the United States we need to keep solidarity in mind, which means both supporting and learning from struggles elsewhere.

 

November 12 update

Zoom in Korea reports:

1 Million in Historic Protest to Oust Park Geun-hye
As of 8:30 pm (Seoul time) on Saturday, November 12, 2016

South Korean media report 1 million gathered at Gwanghwamun Plaza to demand Park Geun-hye’s resignation. This is the largest protest South Korea has seen since the democratic uprising of June 1987. People from across the country, including conservative strongholds Busan and Daegu have traveled to Seoul to join the protest. Youth in school uniforms and mothers with children are among the protest.

Protesters on the way to the Blue House are blocked by a barricade of police buses near Gyeongbok Palace. The police have also blocked off entrances to subway stations between the police barricade and the presidential residence. Protesters are intent on reaching the Blue House but so far remain peaceful.

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon refused to supply water from the city’s fire hydrants to the police, which had threatened to use water cannons to block protesters.  Referring to the death of farmer Baek Nam-gi, hit by a high-pressure water cannon at a mass demonstration in November 2015, Mayor Park said in a radio interview, “No more.” He added, “Water from fire hydrants is intended for putting out fires, not peaceful protests.”  A reporter outside the Blue House says protesters can be heard from the Blue House, which has been in a state of emergency since Saturday morning but has not issued an official response to the calls for the president’s resignation.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has vowed a general strike if Park Geun-hye refuses to resign.

Corporations On The Move

While the fate of the Transpacific Partnership agreement remains uncertain, one thing is clear: Vietnam’s embrace of the agreement has singled transnational corporations that the country is open for business.  And with labor militancy growing in the Asian region, especially in China, South Korea, Indonesia, and Thailand, transnational corporations appear eager to shift operations to that country.

An article in the South Korean newspaper, the Hankyoreh, highlighted the findings of a recent report by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) titled: “Changes in the International Trade Environment and Global Production Bases.”

The report looked at 31 cases involving 27 major transnational corporations that had either invested in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, or Mexico in the preceding two years or had announced plans to do so.  According to the Hankyoreh, the report found that:

15 of the companies – accounting for nearly half of the cases – had either relocated their production bases to Vietnam or were planning to. With just one company planning to exit Vietnam, the data mean a net influx of 14 companies.

Meanwhile, signs pointed to a production base exodus from the “world’s factory” in China, with a negative net influx of eight companies (three entries, eleven departures).

The most commonly cited reason for relocating was to take advantage of trade agreements, which was mentioned in 23 cases. Changes in the business environment were cited in 12 cases.  Among business environment changes, the most frequently mentioned was “to cut personnel costs,” which was cited in nine cases.

Such moves put new pressures on Asian governments to intensify their respective efforts to slash wages, weaken labor protections, and cut taxes.  Whether they can succeed is another matter.

For example, working conditions are already terrible in many Chinese export factories—see here for a recent report on living and working conditions at a factory outside Shanghai where workers assembled Apple products.

Moreover, strikes and workplace actions are on the rise as Chinese workers grow increasingly militant in the face of worsening economic conditions.  In fact, the China Labor Bulletin reported a doubling of strikes in 2015 compared to the previous year.

As the Wall Street Journal explained in an article titled “China’s Workers Are Fighting Back as Economic Dream Fades“:

Factory employment in China has fallen for 25 months, according to a business-sentiment index released by Caixin, a Chinese magazine. China’s labor ministry says it expects employment to remain stable near term but says the impact of China’s slowdown and restructuring can’t be ignored. . . .

Chinese researchers and business executives say chances are rising that the Communist government may face the kind of social unrest that it has long feared. Chinese authorities recently detained and interrogated over a dozen labor activists, mainly in Guangdong.

“They definitely see protests as threatening social security, and are concerned,” says Anita Chan, a visiting fellow with the Political and Social Change Department of Australian National University.

The KOTRA report demonstrates that transnational corporations remain committed to their strategy of using mobility (or the threat of it) to force down production costs despite the fact that this strategy will only intensify global stagnation tendencies.  Hopefully, the pressures generated by capitalist globalization will strengthen worker organizing and encourage the building of cross-border solidarity and demands for greater control over corporate investment and production decisions.

Globalization and Precarious Work In Asia

The Asia-Pacific region is regularly celebrated as the bright spot in the world economy, especially East Asia.  This is largely because the region has been the most successful in attracting foreign direct investment and producing exports of manufacturers.

Generally overlooked is the fact that these “accomplishments” have done little to create adequate formal sector employment opportunities for the region’s workers.  In fact, it is likely that the region’s preeminent position in global production networks is closely tied to government policies which have kept workers in a weak bargaining position.

LOW SHARE OF WORKERS IN WAGE EMPLOYMENT

Perhaps the most basic labor market division is between those that work for wages and those that don’t.  As the International Labor Organization explains:

Poor job quality is pervasive in developing Asia and the Pacific and hinders progress towards improving living standards. One indicative measure is the low share of workers in wage employment which typically is more productive and provides higher earnings. Conversely, the bulk of those workers not in salaried jobs are less likely to have formal employment arrangements and social protection coverage.

In the developing Asia-Pacific region, the estimated number of wage employees totaled 766 million in 2015.  While this represents a remarkable increase of 63.4 per cent since 2000, salaried workers still accounted for only two in five of the region’s workforce. Taken by sub-region, the wage employment rate was lowest in South Asia (a ratio of one in four workers). In East Asia the share was around three in five and in South-East Asia and the Pacific approximately two in five.

Here is a look at the situation in some individual countries:

wage labor

The large number of non-wage workers, many of who are desperate for wage work, have given employers and the state a powerful lever which they have used to weaken worker efforts at unionization and wage bargaining.

THE SLOWDOWN IN FORMAL SECTOR JOB CREATION

University of the Philippines professor Rene E. Ofreneo summarizes recent employment trends, highlighting the slowdown in job creation which began in the 1990s:

Since the 1990s, the UNDP has been pointing out that the outcomes of deeper integration and globalization have been unequal and uneven for most countries, especially for China. The UNDP Report for Asia-Pacific (2006) said that growth has been jobless for some Asian countries, as reflected in East Asia’s job record: 337 million jobs created in the l980s and only 176 million jobs in the l990s. The ILO Report for Asia-Pacific in 2011 also highlights the remarkable divergence between high GDP growth and low employment growth. Note that China has the highest GDP growth and yet it also has the lowest employment growth, with the exception of slumping Japan. . . .

The ILO’s observations on low employment elasticities [which show the increase in employment from an increase in growth] are supported by the study of Jesus Felipe and Rana Hasan (2005), who undertook a labor market survey for the ADB. They estimated a sharp decline in employment elasticities for Asia’s fast-growing economies – China (from 0.33 in the l980s to 0.129 in the l990s), India (from 0.384 to 0.312), Malaysia (from 0.683 to 0.406), Thailand (from 0.315 to 0.193) and Taiwan (from 0.242 to 0.193).  However, Singapore doubled its employment elasticity (from 0.375 to 0.711), while the Philippines registered substantial increase (from 0.535 to 0.711). South Korea’s elasticity hardly changed (from 0.223 to 0.225). One implication of the above statistics is that growth in the fast-growing economies like China and India is indeed accounted for by the increased use of labor-displacing technology, which explains why Felipe and Hasan also found a substantial increase in informal sector employment in these two countries.

While the ILO focus on wage employment is important, it also matters whether the jobs being created represent formal or informal employment. In broad brush, formal sector employment refers to jobs covered by national labor law.  In these jobs, workers are supposed to receive established social benefits, like unemployment compensation or pensions, and work conditions are supposed to be covered by established health and safety regulations.  Wage workers employed in the informal sector are normally not entitled to such benefits or protected by such regulations.  The informal sector can include both wage and nonwage workers.

The definition of formal employment varies greatly across the region.  As Professor Ofreneo describes:

In Bangladesh, formal employment applies only to establishments with 10 or more employees, meaning jobs in enterprises with less than 10 employees are by implication considered informal. Similarly, in Pakistan, the measurement for formal employment is in terms of the number of employees – 20 or more for nonindustrial and 10 or more for industrial establishments. In India, informal employment is simply any employment outside the “organized sector” consisting of the public sector, recognized educational institutions and enterprises registered under the Indian Factories, Co-operative Societies and Provident Fund Acts. In Indonesia, the informals are the own-account workers, self-employed assisted by family members, farmer employees and unpaid family workers. In the case of the Philippines, informal employment includes the self-employed, unpaid family workers and those employed in enterprises with less than 10 people. Thailand, on the other hand, has introduced a more nuanced definition: “informal sector” includes enterprises operating with a low level of organization on a small scale, with low and uncertain wages and with no social welfare and security. Malaysia’s informal definition is focused on the individual workers – the unprotected workers who are not covered by the social security system or the Employees Provident Fund and the self-employed, including unpaid family workers. China defines the informal sector as the totality of small-scale economic units that are not legally established or registered, consisting mainly of micro enterprises, family enterprises and independent service persons.

According to ILO estimates, approximately 65 percent of non-agricultural employment in the Asia-Pacific region is informal employment. More alarming is the fact that formal sector wage employment appears to be shrinking in many countries, often both absolutely and relatively.

THE CHINESE EXPERIENCE

The situation in China is striking.  The following is an excerpt from a past blog post:

In “Misleading Chinese Legal and Statistical Categories: Labor, Individual Entities, and Private Enterprises,” a 2013 article published in the journal Modern China, Philip C.C. Huang describes the evolution and application of Chinese labor law, highlighting its relevance for and growth of different categories of labor.  As he explains, Chinese statistical categories recognize four main types of labor activity based on the legal standing of the employing firm: labor by “employee-workers,” labor by workers employed by legally registered “private enterprises,” labor by people in legally registered “individual entities,” and “unregistered” labor.

Only “employee-workers” are considered formal sector workers and covered by the country’s labor law. . . .

Significantly, as the next table illustrates, both the number and percentage of workers employed in the formal urban economy are shrinking.  The number employed in the formal economy in 2010 was less than the number employed in 1990.  As of 2010, only 36.8% of all workers in the urban economy were employed in formal sector jobs.  In short, all the growth in urban employment over recent decades has been in categories not covered by Chinese labor law, which means that those workers are not covered by legally established minimum wage, overtime regulations, and social benefit requirements.

china

Who are the workers employed outside the formal sector?  “Private enterprises” are mainly legally registered small-scale businesses averaging 13-15 people.  As Huang describes: “They are also as a rule not formally incorporated as a limited liability entity with separate ‘legal person’ status and are therefore not considered legal ‘employing units’ that are involved in ‘labor relations’. . . . These small businesses rely mainly on the cheapest labor available, the majority of them on disemployed workers and peasant-workers, who are considered to be only in a casual work relationship with them and for whom they need provide no benefits.”

“Individual entities” include legally registered small scale operations employing one or perhaps two people, usually the owner and a family member or friend.  In the largest cities, these workers are “largely engaged in wholesale and retail trade (mainly of daily necessities and clothing), followed by small and modest eateries and hostels, domestic and other services, and transport work. . . .Regardless, the great majority of the people operating the individual entities come from the ranks of the disemployed urban workers and the migrant peasant-workers.”

“Unregistered” workers are those, as the category name implies, whose work is unregistered and therefore largely illegal or extralegal.  They are primarily “newer and less established peasants-workers working in the lowest levels of the informal economy, as temporary construction workers, janitors, itinerant peddlers or stall keepers, guards standing outside residential compounds and commercial buildings the help in eateries and hostels domestic servants manual transport and loading-unloading workers, and the like, many of whom work in the shadow of the law without permits, truly members of the so-called floating population.”

Unregistered workers “appear in the official state statistical tallies only as the difference between those who have registered with the official state administrative entities and the actual numbers of laborers counted up by the decennial population censuses (which have made every effort to enumerate every person living and working in the cities).”  As we can see from the table above, the number of unregistered urban workers are quickly catching up to the number of formal sector urban workers.

The critical point here is that despite record rates of growth few formal sector jobs have been created in urban areas.  That means that official Chinese labor laws and regulations cover a relatively small and declining share of Chinese urban sector workers. . . .

At the same time, things are far from rosy for most formal sector workers.  For example, many companies, especially foreign owned companies, have been actively seeking to weaken formal sector job rights by employing so-called dispatched workers and student interns to avoid paying the wages and benefits mandated by Chinese labor law.  It is therefore not surprising, as recent labor struggles make clear, that even workers in the formal sector have been forced to take direct action to ensure compliance with their country’s labor laws and improve their working conditions.

THE KOREAN EXPERIENCE

In Korea, workers are said to have regular or irregular rather than formal or informal labor market status.  The category of irregular workers includes limited-term workers “whose termination of employment is predetermined or fixed”; part-time workers “who work less than 36 hours a week”; and atypical workers who are dispatched workers, subcontracted workers, specially-employed persons, independent contractors, and home-based workers.

A recent story on the rise of irregular workers in South Korea explains the difference between regular and irregular work as follows:

According to attorney S. Nathan Park these terms “are shorthand rather than precise legal definitions. Broadly speaking, a regular worker is a worker who receives the fullest benefits afforded by Korea’s labor laws; an irregular workers is a worker who does not.” The latter could be anything from a sub-contracted worker doing a one-off job to an office worker on a short, two-year contract.

Irregular workers are, in short, precariously employed people. What makes them precarious, Park indicates, is that they aren’t guaranteed the “’four major insurances’” that corporations are legally obligated to provide regular workers — health insurance, occupational hazard insurance, unemployment insurance, and the national pension. These insurances were the legal accomplishments of the labor unions’ post-1987 democratic transition legal victories.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, irregular workers aren’t guaranteed employment unlike regular workers. The latter category of employment, Park adds, “cannot be subject to a defined end date of their employment other than the mandatory retirement age, nor can they be terminated without cause.”

The Korean government has been actively promoting, in concert with large Korean firms, the growth of irregular employment.  In many cases this is being achieved through the introduction of laws that allow corporations to transform work relations, converting regular into irregular work.  For example, until the late 1990s, labor regulations made it difficult for corporations to fire workers or to make significant use of sub-contracted workers, workers dispatched from a temp agency, or workers hired on a temporary contract.  The regulations were changed, enabling large companies to aggressively shed their regular workers, either replacing them with or rehiring them as subcontracted, dispatched, or temporary labor.

A South Korean newspaper article highlights the outcome of this process:

“Each company and industry makes its own determination as to what percentage of irregular workers represents an optimal balance in terms of performance, and that forms the basis of their hiring strategy,” explained Lee Kwang-ho, head of the employment policy team for the Korea Employers’ Federation.

The overall number of irregular workers in South Korea has hovered between 8.18 million and 8.65 million for the seven years since the Fixed-Term Worker Act was enacted in July 2007. The increase has appeared to level off at times, but the number has been more or less set in stone, with legislation, institutional changes, and labor union struggles failing to put a dent in it.

The recent data now show one possible explanation: identical hiring strategies by chaebol [large Korean conglomerates], all of which maintained set percentages of irregular workers through large-scale hiring of “unaffiliated” dispatch workers and subcontractors.

In the past, employers’ groups have pointed to the low percentage of irregular workers hired by companies with over 300 employees as indicating the situation is basically unfixable. They noted that such large companies accounted for just 5.6% of irregular workers in August 2013, while most of the rest were at small workplaces with a staff of 30 or fewer.

But the employment information data now shows that the companies have been breeding grounds for irregular hiring practices.

“Analysis of the data provided by the companies shows that 1,910,000 of the 4,358,000 salaried workers at companies with over 300 employees, or about 43.8%, are irregular workers,” said Kim Yu-seon, a senior research fellow at the Korea Labour and Society Institute (KLSI).

The nearly identical percentages of overall irregular workers – 45.4% of all salaried workers or 8.52 million people as of August, according to KLSI – and irregular workers at large companies suggests that those companies are at the heart of both the problem and its resolution.

This 45.4 percent figure doesn’t capture the full extent of irregular work in South Korea.  Adding self-employed independent contractors, home based workers, and day laborers brings the share of irregular workers to approximately 55 percent of the waged workforce.

Moreover, the Korean government is now aggressively promoting still new changes to the country’s labor laws which will further the growth of irregular work.  For example, proposed reforms will increase the number of industries allowed to use temporary workers and double the length of time that a worker can be employed on a temporary basis, from two years to four years.  And there is nothing in the law that prevents a company from continually rehiring the same worker on the same temporary contract.

This transformation of Korean work relations has greatly increased corporate power at worker expense.  First, workers are being stripped of their job security and their ability to organize and negotiate over their working conditions.  Second, companies are able to greatly reduce their wage and benefit costs.  For example, irregular workers currently earn approximately 54 percent of what regular employees earn for similar work; it was 65 percent in 2004.

PRECARIOUSNESS AND RESISTANCE

China and South Korea are just two examples.  Similar trends exist in the majority of countries in the region.

The takeaway: capitalist globalization dynamics are not leading to the creation of stable, formal labor sector jobs, even in the region with the most dynamic economies.  In fact, current trends in many countries suggest that the reverse is happening, that the drive for profit is encouraging the growth of ever more precarious work and the associated worsening of majority living and working conditions.

At the same time, there is growing labor resistance to this development.  Examples include the recent general strike in Indonesia, widespread labor actions in China, massive demonstrations in Korea, and general strike organizing in India.  In sum, the Asia-Pacific is becoming a region of active national labor struggles for change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political And Economic Struggle In South Korea

Tens of thousands are expected to gather in Seoul on December 5 to protest South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s proposed anti-worker labor market reforms, as well as her pursuit of new free trade agreements and plans for public schools to use a state authored history book. They hope to build on the momentum generated by the November 14 rally, when nearly 100,000 people, mostly farmers, workers, and students, marched in the country’s capital to call for her ouster.

South_Korea_Protests-3

The South Korean National Police Agency has banned the upcoming gathering but the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), calling the ban “unconstitutional,” remains committed to the protest.  Workers see the fight to stop the labor market reforms as critical to the future of the South Korean economy. The reforms are designed to make it easier for companies to fire workers and unilaterally restructure work conditions, as well as increase their use of temporary and sub-contracted labor.

The South Korean government has responded to the protest movement by cracking down on organizers and protesters. It has come under widespread criticism for its excessive use of force against demonstrators on November 14.  A 69-year old farmer remains in critical condition after being doused with tear gas and water cannons. Since November 14, the government has intensified police raids on labor unions and issued an arrest warrant for the president of the KCTU, Han Sang-gyun, for his role in organizing the protest. The police have surrounded the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple, where Han has sought sanctuary.

Han has said he will voluntarily turn himself in to the police if the government will abandon its labor market reform plans. However, if the government refuses to change course, the KCTU vows to launch a general strike. According to Han, “We’re talking about stopping production, freight trucks stopping in their tracks, railroad and subway workers on illegal strikes, and immobilizing the country so that the government will feel the outrage of the workers.”

President Park has also come under fire for comments she made likening protesters to Islamic State (IS) terrorists.  At a recent National Assembly meeting to discuss new counterterrorism bills she is reported to have said, “Rallies where protesters wear face masks should be banned. Isn’t that how IS does it? Hiding their faces….”.

The South Korean experience is far from unique. With the deepening of corporate-led globalization processes, governments everywhere seek to weaken labor movements and worker protections and restrict options for public education and democratic debate. As a consequence, the KCTU’s efforts to revitalize its own union structures through its first ever direct election for top officers and renewed internal education and anchor a broad coalition of social forces around an alternative social vision deserves widespread support and serious study.

Union-Community Victory In Seattle

Seattle teachers deserve praise for their recent contract victory.  It highlights how unions can and should defend both their members and the public interest.

From Valerie Strauss who covers education for the Washington Post:

Seattle teachers went on strike for a week this month [September] with a list of goals for a new contract. By the time the strike officially ended this week, teachers had won some of the usual stuff of contract negotiations — for example, the first cost-of-living raises in six years — but also less standard objectives.

For one thing, teachers demanded, and won, guaranteed daily recess for all elementary school students — 30 minutes each day. In an era when recess for many students has become limited or non-existent despite the known benefits of physical activity, this is a big deal, and something parents had sought.

What’s more, the union and school officials agreed to create committees at 30 schools to look at equity issues, including disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect minorities. Several days after the end of the strike, the Seattle School Board voted for a one-year ban on out-of-school suspensions of elementary students who commit specific nonviolent offenses, and called for a plan that could eliminate all elementary school suspensions.

Other wins for students in Seattle’s nearly 100 traditional public schools include:

Teachers won an end to the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate them — and now, teachers will be included in decisions on the amount of standardized testing for students. This evaluation practice has been slammed by assessment experts as invalid and unreliable, and has led to the narrowing of curriculum, with emphasis on the two subjects for which there are standardized tests, math and English Language arts.

Special education teachers will have fewer students to work with at a time. In addition, there will be caseload limits for other specialists, including psychologists and occupational therapists.

Seattle teachers had said they were not only fighting for pay raises but to make the system better for students. It sounds like they did.