By Colin Gordon
Senior Research Consultant — Iowa Policy Project
Each year at Labor Day, we survey the “State of Working Iowa.” This annual report card examines trends in wages, job growth, and job quality in Iowa. This fall, when the Census Bureau updates its numbers on incomes and health insurance coverage, we will offer a follow-up report on those trends — and their meaning for Iowa’s working families. As in the past, we have devoted close attention through the year (see our monthly “Iowa JobWatch” release) to trends in nonfarm employment because it is an important index of economic progress and particularly of the pace of recovery from the Great Recession. Importantly as well to a public grasp of the meaning of this measure, we have had to deal with manipulation of these numbers by the Governor’s office, which minimizes losses and exaggerates gains. (We have written on the economics and politics of counting jobs, HERE and HERE).
For these reasons, we turn our Labor Day focus on wages in Iowa. What are the long-term trends? What was the impact of the recession (and recovery) on the paychecks of working Iowans? Do age, education, or gender determine whether you gained or lost ground? What are the causes of persistent wage stagnation, and growing wage inequality?
Abraham Lincoln understood what labor meant:
“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first
existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Lincoln’s First Annual Message to Congress,
December 3, 1861.
Harry Truman, maybe not exactly on Labor, but on Labor’s #1 enemy:
“Republicans approve of the American farmer, but they are willing to help him go broke. They stand four-square for the American home–but not for housing. They are strong for labor–but they are stronger for restricting labor’s rights. They favor minimum wage–the smaller the minimum wage the better. They endorse educational opportunity for all–but they won’t spend money for teachers or for schools. They think modern medical care and hospitals are fine–for people who can afford them. They consider electrical power a great blessing–but only when the private power companies get their rake-off. They think American standard of living is a fine thing–so long as it doesn’t spread to all the people. And they admire the Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.”
From Barack Obama:
It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.
Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor–those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized–do a disservice to the cause of democracy.
Fifty years or so ago the American Labor Movement was little more than a group of dreamers, and look at it now. From coast to coast, in factories, stores, warehouse and business establishments of all kinds, industrial democracy is at work.
Employees, represented by free and democratic trade unions of their own choosing, participate actively in determining their wages, hours and working conditions. Their living standards are the highest in the world. Their job rights are protected by collective bargaining agreements. They have fringe benefits that were unheard of less than a generation ago.
Our labor unions are not narrow, self-seeking groups. They have raised wages, shortened hours and provided supplemental benefits. Through collective bargaining and grievance procedures, they have brought justice and democracy to the shop floor. But their work goes beyond their own jobs, and even beyond our borders.
Our unions have fought for aid to education, for better housing, for development of our national resources and for saving the family-sized farms. They have spoken, not for narrow self-interest, but for the public interest and for the people
– John F. Kennedy, Aug. 30, 1960
I need to remind folks that there is another side of the fence. I think the infamous Jay Gould quote on his disdain for laborers really encapsulates capital’s feelings on Labor:
“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
Traditionally this was the start of political campaigns and the end of summer vacation for school age kids. Now politics goes all year long and nearly every aspect of our lives has been politicized by the right, including how we choose to use our own bodies and what we believe or don’t believe spiritually. Kids have been in school for weeks now. No doubt the 12 month school year is probably on the horizon.
Labor is having somewhat of a resurgence, but is far from recovering from the blow delivered by the Gipper, one of America’s worst presidents ever.
Many of today’s questions will focus on labor, to remind us that labor has never had an easy row to hoe.
1) In a meeting that just came to light this week, Tea Party senate candidate Joni Ernst paid homage to who for making her campaign viable?
2) 1842 is crucial to labor history in the US. In the case Commonwealth v. Hunt settled the legality of what entity?
3) An American was killed last weekend fighting for ISIS in Syria. He had what patriotic sounding name?
4) Samuel Gompers is one of the most recognized names in Labor history. What Labor organization did Gompers head?
5) A reclassification by the Drug Enforcement Administration will make it much harder for patients to get what popular and addicting pain killer?
6) What Iowa born Labor leader was head of the mine workers union from 1920 to 1960 and helped form and the lead the CIO?
7) The largest university in Iowa welcomed over 34,000 students last week. Which university is Iowa’s largest?
8) Governor Branstad, in an odd linkage, blamed layoffs at Deere on who?
9) In 1955, a merger of major Labor unions brought together what two unions?
10) In what may become known as the “Branstad Tax” the governor proposed what to replace the gas tax?
11) A poll commissioned by two Republican groups found what demographic thought Republicans to be “stuck in the past”,”intolerant” and “lacking compassion?”
12) A proposed merger will join what Canadian fast fooder with what American fast fooder?
13) Of all the silly things to cover this week, ESPN had a segment on the after work showering habits of what person?
14) Can you name the 3 largest unions in the US based on number of members?
15) Using government powers to make sure an organization does what it says it will. What Iowa elected official wants the government to monitor the ALS foundation to verify it uses money raised by the ice bucket challenge for research?
My project for this weekend is to get all available immigration documentation about my grandparents in case Republicans win both houses. I am only 3rd generation American and I am not sure if that will be enough under their auspices. If they cut the date off at 1900, I may have a problem.
1) Charles and David Koch and the group of funders they put together.
3) Douglas MacArthur McCain
4) American Federation of Labor (AFL).
6) John L. Lewis
7) Iowa State
8) the EPA. Odd for many reasons. Remember Joni Ernst has signed on to oppose renewable energy with Exxon.
9) AFL and the CIO
10) a sales tax on gas.
12) Tim Horton’s (Canada) and Burger King (US). This is so Burger King can avoid US taxes. So I avoid Burger King.
13) Michael Sam, the rookie pro footballer who came out as gay.
14) The NEA, the SEIU and AFSCME
15) Charles Grassley. Look out for the Tea Party with attitudes like that, Chuck!
2014 is the 120th national celebration of labor in the United States. During that time, labor has seldom had true respect in this country. The way history is taught in this country many folks believe that labor strife ended with Samuel Gompers and the advent of Labor Day. But as any true historian will tell you, Labor Day was merely a recognition of the power the labor movement had achieved, but was hardly a cessation in the war against labor as waged by the ownership class in this country.
Since 1894, the US has seen constant and continuing attempts by capitalists to incapacitate and neuter the labor movement in this country. Considering that all of us but those at the very top are laborers of some sort, this is a war on most Americans and their ability to earn a living and provide for their families.
Over the decades labor won some battles. When one thinks of what has become a “standard” work week, one thinks of 40 hours, 8 hours a day with a couple of coffee breaks and a lunch period, with overtime above 40 hours in a week. Many take such an arrangement for granted, almost as if it always existed. However, as many have been learning since the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, none of what we take as standard is written in stone. All these rules and many more which we have come to believe as standard were won through hard negotiation and job actions which were often met with violence and loss of jobs.
Since the ascendancy of Reagan, the balance of power between labor and capital has dramatically shifted to the capital side of the coin. I daresay there has never been a time when Labor was in charge. For a time there was some balance, but the election of Reagan put an end to that.
Whether the Reagan administration was looking for a battle against labor to hang its hat on, or if the strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was actually a narrow battle of the day, the firing of of the strikers by Reagan became a true watershed moment in Labor relations. In short, Labor has never recovered and management has seen victory after victory especially in congresses which have become increasingly management friendly.
To keep the price of labor low, which is one of the major goals, labor must be treated as a commodity and as such an excess must always be available. This is the logic behind Republicans, acting for management, pushing legislation that aids moving jobs offshore, trying to raise retirement age, cuts back on retirement benefits and even the ridiculous suggestion to put children back into the labor force.
The scariest recent development in the labor front is automation. Automation has of course been around for years, but with the digital revolution the possibility of replacing jobs never before thought possible. It is not hard to imagine 3D printers replacing some highly skilled jobs. Even McDonald’s claims that if their cost of labor gets too high it will make automating their restaurants cost effective.
The Labor movement has always been steeped in conflict, usually against management, but sometimes within its own walls. The future looks quite challenging. Even if you are in management or are a professional who believes you are untouchable, you would be smart to keep an eye on and support Labor’s struggles. What happens to them will eventually happen to you. When once you got raises and benefits as Labor’s fortunes rose, so, too, will your fortunes fall as theirs do.
We all learn something new. We learn from school, family and friends, and much of what we learn is on the job. That can not only mean job skills, but also learning human personalities, workplace issues and basic job justice.
Though few in number, some universities, like the University of Illinois, have labor education programs. The professors and scholars there work for and with workers, sometimes on direct job issues, sometimes on union training.
Helena Worthen, in What did you learn at work today?” takes her years of labor education and slimmed them down, seeking to understand how we learn on the job and in the union hall.
Unless you are a teacher, most Americans don’t think about learning styles or philosophies. Worthen covers four different analyses of how we learn and applies them to everyday situations.
She then does case studies of workers she’s been involved with: striking AFSCME care workers in Effingham, Illinois, inner-city pre-apprenticeship trainees, garment workers, trade apprentices, power plant technicians and teachers. Through each case, she documents on how workers’ empowerment and involvement changed not only their work lives, but them personally.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is how children view their working parents. Worthen served as a scholarship judge for AFSCME and read hundreds of essays on “What does AFSCME do for my family?” We often forget how observant children are of family dynamics, how job security or insecurity impacts the family and how much pride they take in their parents and their work. The Labor Movement is missing a great opportunity by not including union families and their children in activities, as these essay writers are often very insightful on how the union maintains their family unit.
Ultimately, a union is about workers developing power to better their conditions. Knowledge is power. How we gain and maintain worker knowledge is the great lesson of this book.
Four Democratic legislators introduced the Schedules That Work Act (H.R. 5159) on July 22 without fanfare. Labor and Women’s groups were quick to sign on to a bill that asserts its help for part time workers in a middle class that increasingly seeks flexibility and fairness in work scheduling from employers. This is especially true for workers who clean, perform janitorial work, serve in restaurants, and work retail.
The statement of Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families on the day the bill was introduced gets the conversation started:
Across the country today, millions of workers receive no advance notice of their schedules or the number of hours they are expected to work. Some are required to call to find out if they are scheduled to work each morning– and have no guarantee of work, pay, or that they won’t be sent home early if they do travel to their workplace. These practices mean that workers, especially women and those paid low wages, are left with significant uncertainty about whether they will be able to pay for basic expenses, meet family and caregiving responsibilities, or pursue educational and job training opportunities. It is a harmful and unnecessary situation.
By giving workers more control over their schedules, encouraging employers to be clear about scheduling and hours expectations, and ensuring employers provide some wages when schedules are irregular or change on short notice, the Schedules That Work Act would provide much-needed predictability and financial stability for workers, businesses and our economy. The bill would go a long way toward helping people meet the dual demands of job and family while promoting economic security and opportunity.
Vermont and San Francisco have laws like this on the books, so why not everyone else in the country? BFIA readers know the answer to that.
Whether the bill gains traction seems doubtful in a Congress less popular than cockroaches. At the same time, creating a viable economic model for a family that relies on several part-time jobs is hard. It’s harder if there are young children. If a person tries to lead an honest, decent life, and get ahead through schooling or job training, it is impossible without a social safety net that includes government tax credits for health insurance and a retirement plan of Social Security and Medicare. If illness or injury have darkened a family’s doorway, they are at the mercy of the community, and life can get hopeless with part time work supporting a family.
Does something need to be done to encourage more people to work part time? Yes, there is a business demand for part time workers, and demand has already pushed starting wages well above the minimum wage, at least in Eastern Iowa. Does something need to be done by government to frame a structure to make life easier? Maybe, maybe not.
During the past five years, the author has worked a number of part time jobs and found most to be accommodating of a flexible schedule. If they were less so, they had strict work rules to facilitate work with an employee base that turned over frequently. A person can understand work rules when they are strict and fairly enforced, and agree to the deal. Companies also seem willing to accommodate flexibility if an employee has basic work skills like showing up on time, working while at work, and producing desired performance results. In a competitive business environment, there will be plenty of part time jobs, and there is something to the idea that the market will drive employee accommodations, because businesses need a skilled workforce to conduct operations.
That isn’t to say there is no merit in the Schedules That Work Act, just that the initial information indicates a lopsidedness in perspective. So read up.
The New York Times ran a background story on July 15, which can be accessed here.
President Obama is on board with some protections, and issued a statement here.
Currently though, as Jennifer Ludden of National Public Radio suggested, if you want flexibility, consider moving to Vermont or San Francisco.
The Schedules That Work Act seems dead on arrival in a Congress obsessed with Obamacare, impeachment, unwavering support for Israel, and deporting young children seeking shelter. The Schedules That Work Act will be one to follow into the midterm elections, and if Democrats win, into the next Congress.
Earlier this year, the Chicago Regional Director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that scholarship football players at Northwestern University have the right to form a labor union and bargain with their employer pursuant to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). A hearing developed an extensive factual record as to the realities of life at a major college football program. Applying these facts to the NLRA, the regional director found that football players are employees with labor rights under the law.
Though appeals may last for years in the Northwestern case, one of the first questions that came to my mind is “what would be the outcome if this happened at Iowa?” Northwestern is a private university and, as such, the NLRA– federal law– governs. At the University of Iowa, the controlling law would be Iowa’s Public Employment Relations Act, or Chapter 20. Though Chapter 20 is largely modeled on the NLRA, there are some key differences. So, assuming the realities of the life of a scholarship football player at Northwestern are relatively similar to a player at Iowa, what is the best guess as to how the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) and Iowa courts would rule if Hawkeyes attempted to form a union?
The threshold question of whether football players have the right to form a union is answered in Chapter 20.4, the exclusions section. Most relevant is 20.4(4) which excludes “students working 20 hours or less.” Certainly, when making its case against labor rights, the Board or Regents would argue that the NCAA prohibits football programs from having more than twenty “countable athletic hours” during the sport season and no more than eight in the off-season. Since the average over the course of the year must be below twenty, the Regents would argue that Iowa football players have no right to organize.
Countable athletic hours, though, excludes time spent in travel, training meetings, “voluntary” weight-lifting, medical check-ins, tape review, and training table. When the NLRB regional director took testimony witnesses attested to a far greater time commitment. During August camp, players averaged 50-60 hours a week in football activities; during the season from September through November, players averaged 40-50 hours per week; from mid-January through the end of July the average was 12-25 hours per week. If PERB or a reviewing Iowa court considers all football related activities, the twenty-hour threshold will be easily surpassed.
Would PERB have to take into account the realities of time demands the NCAA ignores in calculating countable athletic hours? Good question. Consider travel time, Iowa Code 91A.13 states that travel time is not compensable when the transportation is “provided by the employer… as a convenience for the employee, and the employee is not required by the employer to use that means of transportation to the worksite.” Unless Athletic Director Gary Barta decides to allow football players to carpool to road games, Iowa law seems to say football travel time is compensable.
With regard to weight lifting, training meetings, and the rest, would that time count towards the average of twenty hours worked? We do not know for sure. However, when in doubt as to whether a person is “working,” we often look to the body of federal law, which is binding on the University of Iowa in this instance, developed around the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)- the law that says you must get paid at least the minimum wage and time and a half after forty hours. The FLSA states that when an employer “suffers or permits” an employee to work, they are working. As the U.S. Department of Labor says, “work not requested but suffered or permitted to be performed is work time that must be paid for… for example, an employee may voluntarily continue to work at the end of the shift… the reason is immaterial. The hours… are compensable.”
If players are allowed to lift weights or participate in team meetings, this is time worked. Using the text of Chapter 20, the facts of Northwestern football, and the principles of Iowa and federal law regarding time worked, it becomes apparent that Iowa football players probably exceed an average of twenty hours worked and do have the right to form and join a union. NCAA policies do not trump state or federal law. More likely than not, our Hawkeyes have the right to become our union brothers.
~ Nate Willems is an attorney who lives in Mount Vernon.
Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2014 issue of The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr.!! Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.
As we pass Independence Day and inch closer to the heavy political season (it never stops anymore) we need to get ready for the real job of a democracy. The past two years in particular have resulted in gridlock caused by Republican politicians at all levels. This is not what government is about. If those Republican politicians want our vote, they need to answer some questions. Here are some I would love to hear asked and answered honestly, especially by the four Republican candidates for the US House.
1) Do you agree with John Boehner’s action to sue the President?
– Will you join in the lawsuit if elected?
– What are the specific issues (be specific, not “he acts like a king”) for which Mr. Obama should be sued?
– Will you push for impeachment? On what specific grounds?
2) Do you support the SCOTUS ruling in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius?
– If so, what other issues do you believe should be brought to the SCOTUS on religious grounds?
– Should discrimination against gays based on religious beliefs be allowed for closely held public businesses?
3) What specific legislation will you push to address the inequality in pay and conditions for women?
– Please cite Republican legislative action to address this issue in the past?
4) What specific action or legislation will you propose to address income inequality in this country. Please be ready to explain exactly how your proposal will directly affect the working class poor.
5) On immigration, particularly from Latin American countries. Some in your party have described such immigrants as “drug mules with cantaloupe calves.” Do you agree with this assessment?
– What is your proposal to practically deal with undocumented immigrants? What are the ramifications of your proposal?
6) The cost of college has skyrocketed while government support has fallen to all time lows. Thus the cost of college is out of reach for more and more Americans. Soon America will not have the human resources to maintain its lead in many economic categories. Does the cost of post-secondary education feel about right to you?
– Do you have a proposal to alleviate the crushing burden of debt for students? Please be specific on details and ramifications.
7) If elected will you support the House continuing to bring up legislation to end the ACA?
– If so, what would you propose to replace the ACA? Please be specific on coverage and on how the costs will be covered, especially for the poor.
8) Finally, many Republicans are coming to believe climate change is happening. What is your belief in this area?
– Please give specific documented sources for your supporting arguments.
That is a good start. I would really much rather know what an representative believes before I vote. Don’t you?
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This post ran last summer and remains emblematic of a situation lowly paid workers find themselves in Iowa. Since then, Simon Head published Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans, which gets to the heart of the workplace I described. In many ways, this is the new normal for wage workers).
One of my work mates this spring was an Iraq War veteran. Stationed in Tikrit, his military occupational specialty was fueling, although military contractors did most of the fueling work. He had a lot to say about war profiteers, including members of the Bush-Cheney administration. Locals he met did not like the American presence in Iraq. “Too many car bombs,” he said, something they experienced less when Saddam Hussein was in power.
Our supervisors discourage us from talking while we are in our cells (a.k.a. work stations), but when the computer network went down for about 45 minutes one night, we had a chance to talk. For me, that meant mostly listening.
I had been working as a temp in a warehouse in North Liberty for about two weeks. Not sure I could hack it— repetitive motion, standing and walking except during lunch break— my focus had been on staying healthy, and getting the work done as best I could. My goal was to survive, and beyond that, to learn everyone’s name and a little about them. Employees turned over at a rapid pace, so I hadn’t yet done very well on getting to know people. Mostly, it was nose to the grindstone.
It turned out that the Iraq War veteran found another warehouse where he could work through a temp agency for about two dollars more an hour. He was scheduled to start there on Monday. There was no surprise, as the discussion was overheard in the lunchroom the previous day. I wished him good luck with his new job, in case we didn’t get to speak to each other on Thursday.
Living paycheck-to-paycheck, and working poor was something I had not experienced until now. Measuring each week by the number of checks that will arrive, knowing it is enough to barely make regular expenses, can be a grind. I can see why my work mate took the new job— some might say, it’s a no-brainer. But a different view, is that temp work does not provide the means to earn a living wage in any case, at least temporary warehouse work. It was not designed to do so.
These jobs are part of the American outsourcing movement— clear evidence that the changes in a worker’s life regarding wages, and for whom we work, aren’t only happening when jobs move to Asia or Mexico. They are endemic to the Iowa experience.
My hourly wage cost the company $0.154 per kit I assembled. Add on whatever the temp agency gets for their fees, and it is not much. There are no paid benefits. In the context of the entire operation, the expense includes management, supervisors, equipment, material moving, overhead, supplies and external transportation. Inherent is the idea that there are cost savings to the principal manufacturer by doing business this way. And jobs are created, somewhere between 125 and 150 of them where I work.
My work mate and I worked well together. Probably because of our common military experience. At the end of the day, that may be all we had together, as our logistics process, like any in the transformation of the American workplace, could easily be changed, eliminated or improved. In many ways, logistics is a facilitator of the transformation of business. Wage workers have to take it how they can, and sometimes that means switching jobs for another $80 per week.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece first appeared in the Iowa City Press Citizen. It is reprinted with the permission of Senator Bolkcom).
It might seem hard to believe, but some Iowa employers are regularly stealing from their employees. It’s a problem in Johnson County and across Iowa. A recent report suggests that unscrupulous Iowa employers are robbing Iowa workers of $600 million annually.
Iowans work hard for every dollar they earn, and it should not be stolen from them by their employers. This is a disgrace that must be stopped.
Last fall, Kossiwa Agbenowassi worked cleaning the Outback Steakhouse in Coralville. She worked hard seven days per week, scrubbing the dining area, kitchen and bathroom to support her young children. Now, months later, the cleaning subcontractor for Outback has refused to pay her for more than 49 days of work— a total of $2,346 in unpaid wages! Her efforts to get the money she earned have so far failed.
This is a classic case of wage theft, when workers aren’t paid the wages they are legally owed. Studies say it’s a growing epidemic in Iowa, and across the country.
Not only are these employers stealing from their employees, they are not paying withholding taxes, worker compensation or unemployment insurance. They are cheating the system while good employers and every taxpayer subsidize this deplorable practice.
Iowa has some of the weakest wage enforcement laws in the country with virtually no penalties or enforcement when cases are reported to Iowa Workforce Development. Until last year, the department had just one wage investigator to address the concerns of our state’s 1.3 million private sector employees. That’s why Senate Democrats insisted last year and successfully secured funding to add a second wage investigator.
Senate Democrats have introduced legislation several times over the past few years to establish better safeguards to ensure Iowans get paid and allow investigators to more easily go after businesses that fail to pay what they owe. The bill called for better record keeping, stronger penalties and retaliation protections for workers.
Unfortunately, these efforts have been blocked by some of Iowa’s largest and most powerful business associations, including the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Grocers Association and the Federation of Iowa Insurers. Moreover, it has no support from Governor Branstad or House Republicans. And when we voted on it in the Senate this year, not a single Senate Republican supported legislation to protect Iowa workers. They appear to not care that taxpaying Iowa workers are getting millions of dollars of their money stolen from them.
The vast majority of Iowa’s employers are honest and ethical and have nothing to worry about. The proposed reforms simply require employers to provide the terms of employment to their employees in writing and keep a copy on file. This protects both the employer and the worker if there is a disagreement.
Because of the failure of politicians to better protect Iowa workers, the most effective enforcement has come from community groups that have waged a public campaign against employers that owe money but refuse to pay. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Center for Worker Justice have done extraordinary work in getting some workers back the money they have earned and are owed.
It is long past time to protect Iowa workers from the disgraceful practices of some Iowa employers.
~ Joe Bolkcom represents Iowa City in the state senate.