Two Things About Labor

Working the Alley

Trash Picker Working the Alley

As a child Dad would take us to the Eagles hall for a Labor Day event sponsored by his union. There were speeches and socializing, food and beverages, and one year I won a canned ham in a raffle which I proudly brought home to Mother. A lot of people attended and I got to know some of them after joining the union to work at the meat packing plant for a couple of summers while I was an undergraduate. It was an open shop, but I joined the union and still have my union retirement card.

After college, I joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to an infantry company. In the military, and in a number of government and private jobs, I was occasionally a worker, but mostly have managed people and resources over a 40-year worklife. I’ve viewed unions from multiple perspectives, with a personal stake in the union-management relationship. Two things seem most important about the changes in worklife over the years.

Work is not valued adequately. The rise of management consulting firms—that purport help companies drive profitable growth through the effective use of compensation—have methods of assigning value to work. What they do is help companies optimize and reduce human resources costs. Private business has been working to shed people-costs for years and some believe there is an application for these skills in government as well. The growth of outsourcing, temporary job agencies and part time workers are all part of this successful-for-business movement.

What is the value of food security, a livable homelife and a strong social support network? People who do the work to provide these things are taken for granted.

Compensation is a murky endeavor at best. At a job interview in 2014, the district manager of an international service organization emphasized there were no benefits in his company which employed more than 20,000 workers. The work was part-time, and under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, companies who employed people more than 30 hours per week are required to provide health insurance. The company kept employees under 30 hours per week.

The starting hourly wage was above average for the kind of work in the area. To get health insurance mandated by the ACA, people who worked there when I did often turned to the ACA health exchanges for coverage and subsidies. My policy through the exchange costs about $1,200 per month without subsidy. There are stories of much higher premiums for families. If you take the premiums divided by the number of hours worked, it amounts to a $9.89 per hour subsidy of my worklife.

Businesses have methodologies to understand the value of benefits packages. Workers often don’t. While some appreciate the fact that an employer will provide a benefits package, few workers I know put a pencil to it. The focus is almost totally on wages that can be spent and this distorts the value of working for a company. Too, it is hard to define the value of benefits like disability insurance, life insurance, paid time off, and employee appreciation days. People who focus solely on hourly wage rates often don’t understand the broader context in which wages exist in society.

It’s a personal tradition to work on Labor Day. Even when I worked for an oil company, I drove to the office on Labor Day. Besides security, I was often the only person in the high rise office building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

These days the jobs I work are part time and temporary. Working on Labor Day now means finding my way to a home writing table to work on a freelance article, or making a trip to the garden to pull weeds. All of this has value, just not monetary value. Maybe that’s my point.

What is the value of living a reasonably secure life? It’s a lot higher than it feels for working people.

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