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September 07, 2009

Labor Day edition

In the Nation, Annette Bernhardt, Ruth Milkman & Nik Theodore discuss their shocking new study of wage and hour abuses for low-wage workers: Each week, the average respondent took home about fifty dollars less than she earned.

Employers simply flouted any number of laws to deny workers compensation to which they were entitled: One in four workers surveyed earned less than minimum wage in any given week, three out of four were stiffed on overtime pay, two thirds didn't get the meal breaks they were owed, and on, and on.


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Although the study says that the violations are across the board and not restricted to an informal economy, in fact the industries it looks at are dominated by the informal economy. The sample of respondents was 63% Hispanic, 70% foreign-born, and 39% illegal immigrant. The study itself notes that, "Foreign-born Latino workers had the highest minimum wage violation rates of any racial/ethnic group. But among U.S.-born workers, there were significant race differences: African-American workers had a violation rate triple that of their white counterparts (who had by far the lowest violation rates in the sample)." The minimum wage violations are as much about broken immigration and anti-discrimination policies as about broken labor policies.

Also, the reason the study seems shocking is that its methodology is unprecedented - instead of trying to get a random sample by conducting interviews, the authors got names of participants from community organizations and asked each person to refer other people, with correction made for the resulting statistical bias. The method used is rigorous and gaining acceptance for studies about populations at risk (it was invented as a way of estimating AIDS infection rates), but is unorthodox, so previous studies using more traditional methods would not discover the extent of the problem.

It's difficult to organize a class action for ripped-off workers who have no statutory right to work, for workers who are more fearful of getting fired next week and getting evicted, for workers who can barely afford time in their lives to go talk to an attorney for an hour. Forget about trying to organize them; unskilled labor is very difficult to organize and it's unskilled labor that settles at the minimum wage level, by and large.

I am no Marxist but it is this sort of exploitation that makes Marxist analysis seem somewhat appropriate.

It's not true that unskilled labor is difficult to organize. In fact late 19th century unions often did organize unskilled labor - those were the more radical unions. The problem is that the mainstream US union movement has always been middle-class, holding immigrants and the lower class in contempt. The 19th century AFL was a key backer of the Chinese Exclusion Act, arguing that Chinese immigration lowered everyone's wages; the postwar manufacturing unions, led by the UAW, fought for health and pension benefits for their own workers rather than for society as a whole; today's AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, especially the AFSCME, are hostile to immigrants again.

Fortunately unions have made peace with blacks and women since WW2, but they're still anti-Hispanic and anti-Asian. Even the progressive movement today tolerates those attitudes - e.g. in a TAP article attacking Japanese-owned factories in the US, John Judis complained that Kawasaki hires Koreans instead of blacks at its Yonkers plant. No wonder few unions bother to organize those Koreans - it's much easier to hate than to work together. Those unions that do make inroads organizing the immigrant underclass, such as HERE, are subject to harassment from within the union movement.

I would like to correct the author that stated the UAW fought for health and pension benefits for their own members and not society. Since UAW members paid the dues they were the direct responsibility of the negotiating teams. But the UAW led by Walter Reuther have been advocating for a universal health care system for decades! Mr. Reuther also wanted to construct housing in auto plants that would be available to low income workers. His plan would have brought meaning to the term "affordable housing". President Reuther also fought for increases in the minimum wage and a guatanteed income for life, both these policies would have direct impact on the lives of the general populace. Many of the collective bargaining successes achieved by the UAW have spread to the contracts and practices of workers all over America! While not perfect, they have done more for the working class in America than any foreign car manufacturer. Please consider this when considering the purchase of your next vehicle. Support your neighbor, economy, and country - Buy American!

DG, people who make $80,000 a year plus $30,000 in benefits aren't working class - they're upper middle class. Hell, I'm pretty sure in terms of purchasing power, workers at Honda plants in the South make more - they average $90,000 a year including benefits.

And who cares what the "direct responsibility" was? Unions were formed to help lift the working class, not to generate money for their own members. In the 1940s and 50s the major unions explicitly rejected a national social safety net, favoring lavish pension benefits within each unionized employer. Even those represented primarily richer-than-average workers; those unions saw no need to organize farm workers - Cesar Chavez didn't come from within the AFL-CIO. It's really nice that the UAW thinks people in retail should be making $7/hour rather than $5/hour, but that's not a social safety net or support for the working class; that's throwing peanuts for the poor.

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