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Posts Tagged ‘labor’

Wage Workers In Iowa

Workers

Workers

(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.

Wage Theft: An Iowa Disgrace

Senator Joe Bolkcom

Senator Joe Bolkcom

(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.

Labor Update: Staples Boycott

Staples BoycottIt’s hard to fathom the cavalcade of minutia encountered when mailing a package at the post office. The question has been “can a lowly paid worker at Staples do the same work for less?” The postal unions have said no, and the AFL-CIO supported them with its “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott launched earlier this month. In Iowa, the land that puts one to sleep, there has been a little action, but not much. What is going on?

“Office-supply giant Staples has been struggling recently due to the secular decline of major categories like PCs, ink, and paper,” wrote Adam Levine-Weinberg for The Motley Fool. “North American comparable-store sales declined four percent last year. With sales falling, Staples has found that it has far too much space in its stores, and it is therefore looking to downsize to smaller formats.” To use some of the newly created space, Staples struck a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to offer mini-post offices in some of their stores. Staples sells stamps, Priority Mail and other postal services during normal business hours. What and how they do it is outside consideration of union contracts, and hence the rub with union members.

In April the postal worker protests of the Staples-USPS deal made a splash, but Staples and the USPS may have broader problems than a boycott by the small minority of union worker that exist in post-Reagan America. Like with many advocacy efforts against businesses, economics will be a key driver of whether Staples stays in business trying to deal with what the Fool suggests is a problem with the economics of their business model– namely the thrill is gone with regard to visiting specialty retailers like Staples to buy office supplies.

As a former union member, I empathize with Iowa postal workers. In recent months a cavalcade of ever changing rural delivery operators, presumably all non-union, has been delivering mail to our home. Our local post office downsized, with the long-time postmaster retiring, and a different face at the counter every time we go in to buy stamps. Speaking of the latter, the number of stamps our household purchases has decreased significantly as we now pay most bills on line because of the convenience and predictability of payments.

The USPS has problems with its relationship with its union workers, but the lack of Congressional action to properly fund it, combined with changing consumer patterns put the postal service in a no-win situation.

“Labor problems do not exist in a vacuum,” wrote Donald Woolf in an article titled, Labor Problems in the Post Office. Woolf’s article suggests that operational issues like plant obsolescence, the changing nature of the USPS labor force, union representation and bargaining structure, inter-union rivalries and other factors may play a more significant role in postal worker disgruntlement than the USPS-Staples deal. The Staples deal is just more visible than all the wonkiness Woolf refers to.

While it may feel good to have a specific targeted action like the “Don’t Buy Staples” boycott, closer to the truth is feeling good isn’t good enough.

A solution? Elections matter, so get informed and get involved with politics. Electing candidates like Staci Appel, Jim Mowrer, Pat Murphy, Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley may not solve the problems at the USPS, but would go a long way toward getting an empathetic ear in the Congress on the significant challenges that are today’s USPS.

Oh, yeah. It wouldn’t hurt to boycott Staples and let them know it. However, the market will likely take care of Staples.

Wage Theft: A Widespread Problem

Wage Theft

Wage Theft

DUBUQUE– Americans like to think that a fair day’s work brings a fair day’s pay. In today’s labor market, however, wage theft annually amounts to billions of dollars and affects millions of wage earners. Victims include U.S. citizens and immigrants; men and women of every race and ethnicity; and both full-time and contingent workers.

Employers who commit wage theft rob federal and state treasuries of many billions of dollars of revenue through tax and payroll fraud. By cheating workers out of wages, these employers also depress consumer spending and stunt economic growth.

Survey research shows that about two-thirds of low-wage employees suffer wage theft. The withholding of wages or benefits rightfully owed to an employee takes several forms: failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, illegal deductions in pay, employee misclassification, and working off the clock.

While wage theft occurs in all industries, it is especially prevalent in restaurants. A recent poll found that 90 percent of fast-food workers report having wages stolen from them. Restaurant workers hold seven of the 10 lowest-paying occupations in the U.S., earning less on average than farm workers and all other domestic workers. Although the industry has grown steadily over the last twenty years, restaurant workers continue to earn significantly less than workers in almost every other industry, forcing them into public assistance programs.

The average fast-food CEO made nearly $24 million last year, four times more than the average in 2000. By contrast, the average hourly wage for employees increased just 0.3 percent in real dollars since 2000. Taxpayers actually bear a double burden. In addition to the money in food stamps, Medicaid and other government assistance impoverished fast-food workers need to survive, taxpayers also underwrite CEO compensation by allowing deductions for so-called “performance pay.”

Over the past year or so, you’ve probably seen news coverage of the strikes and other job actions fast-food workers have taken against their employers. And wage theft lawsuits have been filed against such giants as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

While those at the bottom of the wage scale are hardest hit, wage theft can be found across the employment spectrum. For example, payroll fraud also impacts people like engineers, financial advisers, adjunct professors, and IT professionals.

Most wage theft goes largely unreported because workers fear losing their jobs, many don’t know their rights, and some don’t even realize the robbery. When reported to authorities, months elapse before the completion of an investigation. And criminal charges are rarely filed. Besides, almost half of workers surveyed nationwide have experienced some form of illegal retaliation, like firing or suspension, when they file complaints.

Right now, government agencies charged with recovering lost income are largely ineffective. Few local governments have the resources or staff to combat wage theft, and several states have shut down or severely cut back their labor departments, leaving workers largely unprotected and vulnerable to exploitation. With only 1,000 investigators to oversee about 7.3 million business establishments employing 135 million workers, officials at the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor concede that violators have a good chance of not getting caught. Even when compelled by judgments or settlements to pay back wages, some employers disappear or go out of business before victims can collect.

Communities, activists, and unions have mobilized to address the problem and scored some victories in several states, cities, and counties, but much more needs to be done. In order to stop wage theft, we need stronger worker protection laws, more enforcement of wage and hour regulations, a lower rate of unemployment, a rise in the minimum wage, and public accountability of individual employers who commit these violations.

Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta.  He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University.  His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque.  Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.

Labor Images From World War II Alive In Railroaders

Railroaders

Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography, edited by John Gruber
Center for Railroad Art & Photography
Railroaders exhibit, Chicago History Museum, through August 2015

By Mike Matejka, Grand Prairie Union News

High quality art and photography books abound – but when was the last time you saw one featuring workers?

World War II railroad workers are the focus in Railroaders, produced by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art.  An accompanying exhibit is on display at the Chicago History Museum through August 2015.  More exhibit details are at http://chicagohistory.org/planavisit/exhibitions/railroaders

During the grim, early days of World War II, photographers were sent out to portray a determined nation, supporting its soldiers overseas.  Incredibly vital were the nation’s railroads – before Interstate highways and with gas and rubber rationing, almost everything and everyone moved on steel rails.   The railroads were in constant motion and facilities, workers and equipment strained for the war effort.

The Office of War Information dispatched photographer Jack Delano, who previously had photographed migrant farm workers in North Carolina, to portray the railroads.  In 1942-43, Delano shot over 2,500 black and white negatives and 250 color transparencies.  There were some pictures of locomotives and stations, but most featured every day workers.

The photographic portraits here are an incredible testament to hard work.  In switch yards, locomotive cabs, roundhouses and cabooses, Delano found his workers, covered in soot and grime, their faces lined from years of outdoor labor.   There is dignity in every photograph and together these images are an American patchwork quilt – immigrants and native born, male and female, multi-racial.

For five years the Center searched for descendants of the photographed workers.  Through families, this book has recreated a life story: where these workers were born, what railroad they worked for, their union affiliation, their children and their homes.   Many 1940s photographs are matched with a contemporary family photo by Delano’s son Pablo.

The exhibit is worth a trip to the Chicago History Museum.  The book, with its stunning photographs and worker stories, can be read and re-read again.  The book is beautifully crafted and extremely high quality.  Most rare in this day and age, the book is printed in the U.S.A. in a union shop.

railroad worker

Average working people go to work daily and their labor creates and sustains our world.  One’s job is not one’s life, but work helps define us.   This book beautifully captures hard-working 1940s Americans and then constructs their story.   Working people reading this will find themselves and their families, no matter their trade or occupation, reflected in this outstanding photographic voyage.

The photos in the book are public domain, having been taken under US Government auspices during World War II.  To find a photo from this series, go to the Library of Congress website under Jack Delano and you’ll find many at   http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=delano%20railroad%20e

 

UAW, VW And The Southern Man

tracy photo topSouthern change gonna
Come at last
Now your crosses
Are burning fast
- Neil Young

On February 12-14, the men and women who assemble the Volkswagen Passat at a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will get to vote on whether or not they want the UAW to represent them and implement a Work Council. Work Councils exists at every other Volkswagen plant in the world except for those in China and the one in Chattanooga.

This election is meaningful on so many levels, not the least of which is that there hasn’t been a major organizing drive at a plant in the south since UFCW organized Smithfield in 2009 after a 16 year struggle there. But it would also be fascinating to see how the Work Council will work in the U.S.  Though Work Councils are common in Germany, if the UAW/Volkswagen election succeeds, it would be the first Work Council established in the U.S.

Work Councils operate differently than how the majority of unions are organized in the U.S. A typical industrial or public sector union in the U.S. exists after workers democratically vote for a union to represent them. They elect the president and local officers, and the local unions’ delegates elect the International or council officers who then hire business managers who work with local leadership on the day to day business of unionism. This includes everything from bargaining a contract, holding labor management meetings and representing workers grievances.

The union (local workers with union staff) will then negotiate with management to establish a contract that covers wages, benefits and conditions of employment. They do not get to make decisions typically decided as management’s decisions, and most contracts usually start with a “Management’s Rights” clause laying out management’s rights to hire and make other decisions about how the plant/office will run.

In Germany, worker representatives serve in equal number as management on a council to make mutual decisions about how the plant will operate. This goes well beyond the U.S. model and may include such discussions previously categorized as “Management Rights” like what cars will be manufactured at what plants.  Read more here  and here

As UAW President Bob King describes it, “In Germany, work councils are a unique model of collaboration between workers and employers that simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. yet. Works councils and the German system of co-determination demonstrate how company management and a strong union can partner and thrive.” http://www.detroitnews.com/

UAW has declared that a majority of workers support the union, and Volkswagen, though not officially in support of the organizing drive, has neither launched an anti-union campaign like what you typically see during an organizing drive. Frank Fisher, chairman and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga said, “Volkswagen Group of America and the UAW have agreed to this common path for the election. That means employees can decide on representation in a secret ballot election, independently conducted by the NLRB. Volkswagen is committed to neutrality and calls upon all third parties to honor the principle of neutrality.”

tracy post photo 3This should make for a non-controversial organizing. However, politicians and right wing think tanks are not allowing the organizing effort to go unchallenged. Tennessee’s Senator Bob Corker said Volkswagen would be a “laughingstock” for not fighting the union. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has been a constant critic claiming it will hurt the state’s economy.   “I think that there are some ramifications to the vote in a terms of our ability to attract other suppliers,” Haslam told a regional newspaper’s editorial board.

Additionally, Center for Worker Freedom, an offshoot of Americans for Tax Reform the dark-money group headed by Grover Norquist, has reportedly bought radio ads and more than a dozen billboards in the area that are thinly veiled attempts to squash the effort using race and communist fears, an ugly regression of Southern stereotypes.

One of them has the words “United Auto Workers,” written in large black block print, but the word “Auto” is crossed out with what looks like red spray paint and replaced with the word “Obama.”  Underneath it reads, “The UAW spends millions to elect liberal politicians, including Barack Obama,” and it directs you to a website: workerfreedom.org.

tracy post photo 4Another enormous bill board has a picture of a crumbling former auto plant and reads, “Auto Unions ATE Detroit…Next Meal: Chattanooga?” It also directs to the workerfreedom.org website where you are warned that “UAW Wants Your Guns.”

Yet another billboard refers to a Reuters article which claims, “almost every job lost at U.S. car factories in the last 30 years has occurred at a unionized company.”

But I prefer what Pete Seeger had to say about what happens when workers join a union:

That if you don’t let red-baiting break you up
And if you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up
And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up
You’ll win. What I mean, take it easy, but take it

 Pete Seeger 2

Labor Update: Baseball Solidarity

epanding the strike zoneBook Review: Baseball as multinational and players as union

by Mike Matejka
Grand Prairie Union News, Bloomington, Illinois

Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency by Daniel Gilbert, U. Mass Press

As this year’s U.S. World Series fades from memory and baseball fans’ hope turns to 2014, we often forget two things: 1) baseball is a business, and 2) baseball is not just the “All-American” game.

In a new book that weaves together baseball unionism, players’ rights and the international reach of America’s past-time, Daniel Gilbert’s Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency examines the sport from multiple levels.

First, there is workers’ rights.  Gilbert traces how players established a union and with the leadership of the Cardinal’s Curt Flood, challenged baseball’s reserve system, where players could be traded without any input.  Although Flood lost his 1969 court case after he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, his battle was won with the establishment of the Major League Players Association (MLPA).

The great break through for the MLPA was their hiring of Marvin Miller, a United Steel Workers economist, as their director.   The MLPA was started in 1946, restarted in 1954, and became the premier sports union after Miller was hired in 1966.

Players saw the multimillion dollar deals being made for television, but had little bargaining power.  Plus, the reserve clause meant they could be traded at any point.

Miller channeled those frustrations and built a united front, striking in 1981 and winning not only free agency, but also greater control for players over their image and its use.

Gilbert deftly places this organization in the context of 1960s civil rights and other efforts.  Stars like Curt Flood entered the League when spring training housing was still segregated; in June 1965, the Baltimore Afro-American ran a statistical report that two-thirds of players hit by pitchers were African-American.  In 1962, Flood participated in an NAACP rally in Jackson, Mississippi.  With these experiences, it’s no wonder Flood equated the reserve clause with slavery.

Thanks to Miller and player solidarity, baseball players not only forged a strong union, but also gained a financial share in how their image is sold.

The other fascinating story here is how international major league baseball is.

When the major leagues expanded, then Vice-president Richard Nixon saw baseball as a positive U.S. influence, calling for major league affiliates in Havana, Montreal and Mexico City.  The Canadians soon won franchises, but U.S. baseball has not expanded further.

When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, not only did African-Americans gain big league opportunities, so did  players from Japan, the Caribbean and Latin America.

The 1964 San Francisco Giants not only boasted African-Americans Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, but Orlando Cepeda (Puerto Rico), Masanori Murakim (Japan), and from the Dominican Republic, Jesus Alou and brothers Juan and Mateo Marichal.

The L.A. Dodgers in 1981 featured Mexican Fernando Valenzuela and the 2001 Seattle Mariners succeeded with Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki.

Gilbert does more than trace the transnational careers of these baseball stand-outs.  He documents the business relationships Major League Baseball has made with leagues in other countries.

Baseball players is a leading export of the Dominic Republic, where impoverished youngsters vie for spots in baseball camps, some run by U.S. teams,   Just as U.S. companies have run off-shore for cheaper labor, is baseball doing the same in the Caribbean?

Professional baseball is more than sport — it’s entertainment and a business with a transnational reach.  Gilbert’s book thoroughly explores both topics and leaves one wondering at the end — will there ever be a real “world” series?

Shining Light on Low Wages

At Sunset

At Sunset

When people talk about suppression of wages in the United States, and the growing inequality between the richest Americans and the rest of us, Walmart and the heirs of Sam Walton have been the poster children with the biggest target on their back. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notably said in a tone of moral outrage, “today the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America.”

The Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently published a report based on data about Walmart employees in Wisconsin who participate in federal social programs. The report quantifies the financial impact of Walmart employees on the U.S. social safety networks, and on the economy more generally. The report said, “rising income inequality and wage stagnation threaten the future of America’s middle class. While corporate profits break records, the share of national income going to workers’ wages has reached record lows.”

Thomas Stackpole released a story about the Democratic report on Mother Jones, and if a person is interested in the issue of low paying jobs, it is worth a read. The author circulated two of the progressive nostrums I mentioned in my article, “Working for Low Wages,” increasing the minimum wage and union organizing. Stackpole wrote, “Walmart’s history of suppressing local wages and busting fledgling union efforts is common knowledge.”

In my article, I made the case, based on my personal experience as a warehouse worker, that there is more to working a low wage job than the pay. There has to be because the cost of living, including health care, transportation, food, shelter, and interest on debt, is more than low wage jobs pay. Nothing would change if the minimum wage were raised to over $10 per hour as some propose. Low wage jobs fall short of a living wage, so people have to adapt, and one of the ways they do is to take advantage of governmental social programs. It’s not the only way people adapt, but it is an expense to taxpayers to provide these programs, and because Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S. they are used as the whipping boy for the impact of their low wages on the expense of social programs to taxpayers.

Unions have to become more relevant to low wage workers before they have a chance in companies like Walmart. The repeated failures of union organizing attempts at Walmart serve my point. Part of the failure to organize is the resources the company’s management brings to bear on any organizing attempt. Part of it is the failure of unions to provide what is perceived by a majority of targeted workers as value. Creating a Walmart employee union does not seem to be in the cards despite all the noise in the corporate media. Sanders’ moral outrage, and ours, goes unaddressed, and will until unions become more relevant to the needs of low wage workers, as those workers perceive it.

The debate over Walmart employees using the social safety net seems a red herring, especially at the granular, local perspective of a person who has recently worked a low wage job. It is doubtful that government, especially one with close ties to Wall Street, will be able to do much to impact working people in a meaningful and positive way. Nor is it the role of government to preserve and build the middle class. It’s the working class that needs help and the two aren’t the same thing.

When government creates a program like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), reduced price school lunches, subsidized housing, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), they address poverty in the way government knows how. That a big company has employees on government programs is neither surprising, nor a source of the same moral outrage that should be expressed about the the disparities between the richest Americans and the rest of us.

Participating in government programs is one of the ways low wage workers get by. Shining light on Walmart and Sam Walton’s heirs contributes little to resolving the needs of working people, even if some with a national perspective are fond of doing so.

Working for Low Wages

Workers

Workers

52 days of work for a nearby logistics company was an eye opener. In a world of constant electronic contact with smartphones and computers— via social media applications, on-line corporate media outlets and Internet discussion groups— our perceptions of society lean toward generalities and abstraction. Progressive commentary, about increasing the minimum wage and union organizing, seems disconnected when one works with others for low wages. As a worker, it is obvious there are inequalities in pay for work, and that the disparity between the richest Americans and the majority is widening. Yet people need an income, so they give up part of their freedom to toil in the fields of corporate masters, voluntarily.

In my short span as a warehouse worker, an endless river of people flowed through the building, each finding value, at least enough to attract them to the work, in the manual labor. Whether it was the prestige of having a job, working with friends, or socializing with new people, the monetary compensation was inadequate to have made it the main attraction. Some said they worked there to pay bills, but the compensation alone could not sustain the simplest of lives on the Iowa prairie.

The payday for low paying work is building a social network to help meet basic economic needs— one based in direct human contact, unfiltered by electronic media. A host of services was available because of the work relationship. A tattoo artist offered his ink, people of means offered loans, and gardeners offered to exchange vegetables and baked goods. There was ride-sharing, child care and a network of discovery of ways to escape low paying work for something better. Human society in places like this is like a living coral reef, where everyone’s needs can be met at a certain level.

Part of the learning was that such jobs are available, there is an ample supply of labor to fill them, physical stamina is required to perform the work, and a steady paycheck can play a role in a broader life. When we consider our choices in life— health care, a place to live, food to eat, taxes, loan interest and insurance— sustaining basic living can be problematic at $9.25 per hour without benefits. There is no simple resolution to this deficiency in pay for work.

Two progressive nostrums offer no help: organizing a union and increasing the minimum wage.

When I met Andy Stern, then president of Service Employees International Union, we talked about organizing logistics workers. Stern agreed labor unions lost the battle of maintaining union drivers and dock workers after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated trucking. He suggested there was a new organizing possibility in the logistics workers who are the next layer of employees in a global supply chain. He felt it fit well with what his union was doing organizing janitorial and health services workers. Having worked a career for a company that made the transition from all union to non-union as deregulation rolled out, I was skeptical.

After my experience at the warehouse, Stern’s hope to organize logistics workers seems unrealistic. Not only is the corporation that was the ultimate customer for our work removed from employees, there were multiple layers of removal. A lengthy probationary period working for a temporary employment service distanced beginning workers from the company. Multiple temporary employment companies were used. Likewise, the logistics company to whom we were leased from the temp agency was a subcontractor for the company, working on successive three-year contracts. Colleagues often did not know for whom they would be working if they successfully made it through the temporary employment agency to the logistics company as employees. On a given day, people doing the same work received paychecks from at least three different entities. When combined with high employee turnover, union organizing would be nearly impossible in such an environment.

The progressive talk about raising the minimum wage is a case of barking up the wrong tree. At two dollars an hour above minimum wage, the warehouse work attracted former box store employees, fast food restaurant employees and other minimum wage earners. The earnings alone were not enough to live, even modestly.

When I heard former labor secretary Robert Reich speak in Iowa City, one topic was the widening inequality in society and concentration of wealth among the richest one percent of the population. He pointed out that the minimum wage was not the correct measure of how wage earners were doing. What matters more is that the median wage keeps up with the overall economy, something it has not done. He recently wrote, “the problem is we haven’t been living nearly as well as our growing economy should have allowed us to live,” and that if wages tracked the economy, the median wage would be over $90,000 per year today ($43.27 per hour for a 40 hour work week). Progressives may feel good about advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, however, an increase would not address the fundamental problem wage earners face on a daily basis. A substantial portion of their economic survival depends on social networking rather than their rate of pay from a single job.

The eye opener for me while working at the warehouse was that in a workplace where no one had ever heard of me, my work was accepted by management and by my colleagues without question. People find value in working a job at any rate of pay because the real value is in the social networking it enables. One doesn’t hear that in the social or corporate media, but maybe we should.

Wage Workers in Iowa

Workers

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 can. My goal was to survive, and beyond that, to learn everyone’s name and a little about them. Employees turnover 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.