Friday, November 25, 2022

Three Months of Growing Union Activity Where It’s New, And Its Cause

Another characteristic of today’s labor situation - unwillingness to put up with what workers consider unacceptably bad times on the job – keeps unfolding.

To start, “Chipotle workers in Michigan to join teamsters, first for restaurant chain,” by Ken Martin in Fox Business on August 26th, documented workers in a Lansing branch seeking representation “to improve their work schedules, increase wages, and gain the respect from management that they’ve rightfully earned.”  The victorious Teamsters general president issued a clarion call, saying “now is the time for working people in this country to take back what’s theirs.  No matter your industry, no matter your age or how intimidating your employer mat seem, you too can protect your labor with a union.”  That towered over Chipotle’s chief corporate affairs officer saying that “our employees are our greatest asset,” and those not backing up that stale boilerplate will meet the same fate.

A combination of social media and those on payrolls at a world-famous coffee chain is proving effective, as “Starbucks workers are winning the union fight on TikTok” (Jo Constanz, Benefit News, September 1st).  A video posted there “showing employees staging a walkout after the firing of a coworker got 28 million views,” a massive number even given that company employs 402,000.  More to follow there…

That same day, it happened that “Amazon loses attempt to scrap historic union win,” also by Ken Martin in Fox Business, published September 2nd.  The retailer “filed more than two dozen objections with the National Labor Relations Board” to unionizing workers at their Staten Island warehouse, but they were all denied.  Martin also noted that “other campaigns have kicked off at Amazon warehouses in North Carolina, Kentucky and elsewhere.”

As well, “4,000 Google contractors quietly unionized, a big win for a labor movement that has struggled to make inroads with Big Tech,” as reported on September 5th in The Washington Post.  They were not technicians, though, but “cooks and servers” at their cafeterias.

Beyond only organizing, we see “Strikes becoming more common amid inflation, tight labor market” (Kris Maher, Fox Business, September 16th).  A Cornell University group found that during the first six months of 2021 there had been 102 strikes with 26,500 workers, but at that point this year it was 180 with 78,000, and 87 more by article time.  The piece did not mention the activities above.

Part of another large company joined the trend, as an “Apple Store in Oklahoma City Becomes Second to Unionize,” by Noam Scheiber in the October 14th New York Times.  Employees there will join the Communications Workers of America, long at AT&T and now also representing at Verizon and The New York Times itself.  They, interestingly, had no issues with pay or benefits but “complained that supervisors’ decisions about hiring, pay and job assignments were often opaque.”  If those views become common reasons for unionization, look out for a tidal wave of that in office parks all over the country.

To show that unions aren’t winning everything, we were informed by the October 18th Washington Post as “Amazon workers vote overwhelmingly against unionizing at a warehouse near Albany, N.Y.”  The vote was 206 for and 406 against.  We were also told, by Steven Greenhouse in the November 3rd Slate, that “Starbucks’ Aggressive Union-Busting Is a New Model for American Corporations,” which, per the author, the company accomplished by closing stores with union authorization, and had since been done by Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and Amy’s Kitchen.  That, along with Starbucks’ giving “new benefits to its nonunion workers, but not to its unionized ones,” assertions that the Albany election was marked by “intimidation and retaliation on a daily basis,” and Apple “withholding some education and health care benefits” from union employees, seems certain to be settled in court, where new precedents will likely be established.

Yet the coffee chain, per the article above, now has at least 200 unionized locations, and, per Noam Scheiber again in the New York Times, we saw “Starbucks Workers Strike at Dozens of Stores Nationally” (November 17th), caused by “the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith and anti-union tactics like firings and store closings.”  There will be more, unless companies adjust quickly to the times we have been in since the pandemic.  And that statement goes for all of the union activities described here.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Big Ideas - II

On we move from last week’s look at larger propositions relating to jobs and the economy.  Here are five more recently published ones.

Peter Coy, in the September 5th New York Times, reached the philosophical peak with “Work is intrinsically good.  Or maybe it’s not?”  That fair question has been discussed for centuries, maybe millennia.  Coy discussed pertinent survey results showing people tended to think work was good for its own sake, but the idea is certainly critiquable, as the reasons respondents came up with seemed to assume that labor was valuable because it would produce things of value.  The author did not clearly hit the issue of whether work which could not achieve anything constructive was worthwhile, and I don’t think it is. 

“What Role Should Business Play in Society?”  This question was posed by Mariana Mazzucato in the September 19th Harvard Business Review.  It’s not a new one either, and its answers often fall along political lines, with conservatives echoing Nobel economist Milton Friedman’s statement that businesses are only responsible to their shareholders, while liberals call for social obligations of some sort.  The author here looked for a variety of ways companies can have positive social and technological impact beyond their profitability, and decried the likes of stock buybacks, which indeed do not increase income.  I don’t see clear answers here – while we should not be able to demand that corporations follow agendas outside their business objectives, it would be sad to see them turn into investment firms offering nothing to outsiders or even customers – so the resolution is still a long time, and a large amount of thinking and debate, away.

Related to the first idea from last week’s post is “The end of academia’s Gilded Age,” by Tom Cotton in Fox News on September 21st.  This United States senator has written legislation holding universities accountable for their failures, by starting to “disincentivize and penalize colleges that indebt their students in undesirable and unmarketable programs, causing graduates to default years later,” by compelling “colleges to reduce the cost of tuition and to stop hoarding large amounts of endowment money,” and levying “a 20 percent luxury tax on undergraduate tuition above $40,000 and a one percent tax on the richest private college endowments,” those collections to fund “workforce education to help the majority Americans that don’t have a college degree.”  Cotton’s idea implicitly makes a distinction between programs designed mainly for student economic betterment and less vocational ones frankly suiting only those able to afford them.  While not perfect, I endorse the proposals here as steps in the right direction.

In the October 16th New York Times, Tish Harrison Warren told us “How to Fight Back Against the Inhumanity of Modern Work.”  Her complaints were about “productivity monitoring,” and the tendency of people to engage in work activities, such as checking work email accounts, during ostensibly off hours, and she recommended individual selections.  I don’t have much sympathy for workers or their bosses in the latter, as it is a subject for labor-management negotiations and career-choice decisions, but the former can be legislated.  Should it be, and if so, what limitations should be placed on it?  We must decide.

Last is another issue coming up in recent years, whether “Globalism Failed to Deliver the Economy We Need,” by Rana Foroohar in the New York Times on October 17th.  What also might be called capital without borders had been the developed-world standard, until derailed by more repressive governments, what has been called populism, and what might have been the first shooting war between two countries with McDonald’s restaurants.  There is no reason why that system can’t permanently change, as not every public policy decision even in the likes of Western Europe and the United States was consistent with it, and in some cases, such as the Euro currency preventing individual participants from devaluing their money, globalistic measures hurt instead of help the prosperity they are supposed to improve.  Foroohar made a valid case here, but once again, informed decisions will take time – as they will for the others as well.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Big Ideas – I

Since spring, I have been getting employment and economy-related articles that aren’t about specific events as much as conceptual areas which the authors think should change.  What are they saying? How much merit do their suggestions have?

Working in chronological order, we start with “College Became the Default.  Let’s Rethink That,” by John McWhorter in the April 5th New York Times.  I’m looking at my copy of Caroline Bird’s The Case Against College, the classic in the field and now 47 years old.  It has some quaint-looking figures, such as students as of 1973 owing $6.8 billion to lenders – it’s now 256 times that amount – but tells us this issue is nothing new.  McWhorter’s emphasis is on a variety of possible choices, including other educational experiences, going before finishing high school, and immediately working.  It is true that colleges have been getting a free pass for a long time – paying high salaries to professors working in effect part-time, massing endowment nest eggs in some cases higher than the budgets of the states in which they are located while raising tuition much more than inflation, arranging to admit more wealthy and upper-class students by rigging acceptance requirements to favor them, and maybe more than anything else getting credit for their graduates’ success, when they were the smartest and most ambitious young people to start with.  The problem, as McWhorter does mention, is companies requiring bachelor’s or master’s degrees for jobs not requiring them.  I support fewer people going to college, but until it ceases to become necessary when it is not, it remains the prudent thing to do.

Yes, I was one of no doubt many wanting to see “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” (Jonathan Haidt, The Atlantic, April 11th), so I skimmed this article and printed all 24 of its pages.  The author said “the story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit,” and saw communities, epitomized by but hardly limited to the two main political sides, fragmenting and disappearing largely due to the effects of social media.  If this is familiar, you may have read Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind, or Mark Bauerlein’s 2008 The Dumbest Generation” – this one’s not a new concern either.  His solutions, “harden democratic institutions,” “reform social media,” and “prepare the next generation,” are mixed – that our guardrails continue to hold makes the first one valuable if necessary, but the others may not be implementable.

I also was interested in why “It’s Time to Stop Living the American Scam” (Tim Kreider, The New York Times, July 7th).  This piece harkened back to Craig Lambert’s 2015 Shadow Work, about which you can read my two-post review and agreeing viewpoint in this blog, dated June of that year.  Kreider focused more on workplaces, but, although it bears repeating and is still a real problem, he gave us only a subset of Lambert’s 7-year-old issue.  The only long-term solution here is for the market to speak, with people stuck with shadow work either paying for alternatives or simply refusing to do it. 

As I posted on May 20th, my view on electric vehicles is negative, and so was glad to see “Electric Cars Too Costly for Many, Even With Aid in Climate Bill,” by Jack Ewing in the August 8th New York Times.  Along with their perpetual driving-range problem, apparently their costs are staying high, cited here as being an average of $20,000 more than the mean for “all new cars,” since they have been hit hard by raw-battery-material shortages and pushed up further by high demand.  They may have established a niche, but I nonetheless see electric vehicles useful for limited-distance applications such as buses, but otherwise not becoming the norm, until they have the likes of reliably-available half-hour charging times and high-three-figure daily mileage ranges.

What has changed about the nature of labor?  Per the Washington Post Editorial Board on September 4th, “Out of office:  The pandemic and the new meaning of work,” plenty.  The relatively short editorial touched on high demand for employees, many “seeking fulfilling lives,” quiet quitting as a phenomenon and misnomer, and the home-office conflict.  People who “proved in the pandemic to be resilient and adaptable” can expect to “be tested anew in a future of work that looks far different from the past.”  Or resembles how it looked in some, yet-unknown postwar decade.  The role of remote work has been a pendulum ever since George H. W. Bush was elected president, and while its swing has been disturbed, it will go back to moving back and forth.

Expect at least five additional ideas next week.

Friday, November 4, 2022

October: A Mixed Employment Report, AJSN Latent Demand Unchanged at 16.0 Million, and Two Things Still Clear

This morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was not supposed to be especially critical or revealing – did it turn out that way?

We gained 261,000 net new nonfarm positions, well over the published consensus 200,000 estimate and still far more than our population increase could absorb, but most of the other numbers were unfavorable.  Seasonally adjusted and unadjusted unemployment both increased, 0.2% to 3.7% and 0.1% to 3.4% respectively, with 300,000 more officially jobless people and 100,000 additional, or 1.2 million, out for 27 weeks or longer.  The two measures showing how common it is for Americans to be either working or at the front line of not working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, both lost 0.1% to reach 62.2% and 60.0%.  Average hourly private nonfarm payroll wages were $32.58, up 12 cents but once again less than inflation.  Improvers were the count of people working part-time for economic reasons, or doing that while thus far unsuccessfully seeking full-time employment, down 100,000 to 3.7 million, and the number employed, which, oddly in conjunction with these other results, rose 141,000 to 159,144.000. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure telling how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy and routine to get, differed less than 8,000 from the previous month’s, as follows:

The largest increase came from the count of unemployed, offset by reductions in those discouraged and those wanting work but not available for it.  The share of the AJSN from those officially jobless grew 0.8% but stayed below one-third, reaching 31.6%.  Compared with a year ago, the AJSN has lost 1.3 million, about 90% of that from lower unemployment.

On the Covid-19 front, we saw great improvements from mid-September to mid-October.  Compared with September 16th, the seven-day average of new cases on October 15th fell 39% to 38,079, hospitalizations were off 18% to 26,679, and deaths dropped 16% to 375.  Helped by the new improved booster, the same measure of daily vaccinations soared 75% to 522,283. 

So what do we make of this still-crucial hodgepodge?  Lots of the results above worsened if not massively, but we once more gained employment, added many jobs, and have unemployment in the six-month 3.5% - 3.7% range – not a bad rut.  The two facts we cannot reasonably debate are that we are regularly getting more positions and have unemployment wildly inconsistent with being in a recession.  Although it was smaller, it was still indisputable that the turtle took another step forward.