Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Freedom to Starve: The New Job Economy

A recent LA Times Op-Ed by Sara Horowitz, the president of the Freelancers Union, is a sad testimony to the way that good people can buy into some very bad ideas.  She begins innocently enough by describing a current shift in employment practices: “Freelancers, independent contractors and temp workers are on their way to making up the majority of the U.S. labor force. They number 42 million, or one-third of all workers in the nation. That figure is expected to rise to 40% — some 60 million people — by the end of the decade.” As we have seen in higher education, this move to just-in-time, part-time, flexible labor often has many disadvantages including no benefits, no job security, low wages, and unpredictable, last-minute schedules.
One would think that an organization representing this growing sector of the labor force would condemn the super-exploitation of employees, but instead we are told the following: “It's true that many have been forced into this brave new world of freelance work by external factors. But many are getting into it by choice because independent work aligns with a paradigm shift in values that is happening both at work and in the marketplace.”  In other words, the new generation of workers likes this form of super-exploited labor because it fits their lifestyles.  For instance, we are informed that, “Nearly 9 in 10 workers affiliated with Freelancers Union, a 250,000-member nonprofit, say they wouldn't return to traditional work if they had the choice. This sentiment is especially true for millennials, who will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025 — and who work and consume differently than generations before them.”  Although it is unclear who has responded to this survey and how they define traditional work, the message appears to be that the notion of a stable job with benefits and a career is now considered to be out of date and undesirable.
According to Horowitz, “among the growing ranks of independent workers, labor itself is increasingly its own reward, as is the opportunity to establish a work-life balance that was unthinkable during the Era of Big Work. Millions of freelancers are working when they want and how they want. They're building gratifying careers but also happy lives.” The notion that labor is its own reward sounds like a massive rationalization for self-exploitation, and while it is true that some people may prefer a more flexible work schedule, flexibility is often a tool for employer manipulation. 
We are told that workers want to be self-employed and don’t mind not having job security or stable wages because they prefer their freedom: “Yes, the comfort of a regular paycheck is gone, but it's replaced by other, arguably greater comforts: a flexible schedule, the sense of ownership and pride that comes with being one's own boss, the ability to prioritize health and wellness in ways that are incompatible with traditional employment structures.”  As one French philosopher once said, freedom has often resulted in the freedom to starve. 
The fact that a labor organizer is promoting this “new economy ideology” is indicative of the total dominance of the neoliberal economic regime:  as corporations increase their record breaking profits and the real wages of the average worker goes down, the working poor are told to embrace their new freedom.  Moreover, it turns out that they won’t mind having no money because they really don’t like buying things: “In reality, millennials tend to value experiences more than things. Their consumption habits are driven less by what kind of job they have and more by their pursuit of ever-evolving technology, brands that align with their ideals and sustainable and social purpose purchasing.”  What Horowitz does not say that is that due to their high-level of student debt and low-wage jobs in the micro-economy, young people cannot afford to buy even the basic necessities. 

Of course, Horowitz would likely dismiss these criticisms as the result of the inability to embrace the inevitable drive of history and technology: “From what we buy to how we work — and why we do either — the American economy is undergoing a change every bit as epic as the shift a century ago from an agrarian society to an industrial one. When workers left the farm for the factory, there were, undoubtedly, plenty who mourned the loss of the old way of life, while others eagerly looked to the next era with vision and enthusiasm. The same is true today.” Although we should not deny that our labor system is changing, it is still important for us to protect the good aspects of the old economy.  What we don’t need is the blind enthusiasm that pushes Horowitz to proclaim the following:  “The Era of Big Work is indeed over, and good riddance. Welcome to the Era of Meaningful Independence.”  Really?  From a labor organizer?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Educating for Workplace Democracy

Helena Worthen’s What Did You Learn at Work Today: TheForbidden Lessons of Labor Education offers an effective primer on why workplace democracy is so important today.  The focus of the book is on how workers can learn about labor rights and collective action inside and outside of the workplace.  Although Worthen uses some education and labor theories, the work is grounded in concrete experiences and complex workplace situations.  One of the central points she exposes is that most workers have no idea about their rights until they run into a problem, and then it is often too late.

Worthen has found that when workers from diverse workplaces get together and talk about their experiences on the job, they soon discover that some workers have a lot of say in how their job is done, while others have little if any say.  Worthen makes a strong claim that all workers should have the opportunity to improve their jobs and their workplaces through active participation and shared learning, but this is not the norm in the current employment system, especially in the growing service sector. As more public service jobs are privatized and de-unionized, workers have less job security, lower pay, and a reduced level of control over their own work. 

While Worthen shows why unionization is a key to increasing workplace democracy, she also discusses many ways workers in non-union jobs can fight for more rights.  For instance, workers can organize around safety issues even if they do not have a collective bargaining agreement.  In example after example, she reveals what happens when the workers on the ground are not consulted about their expert knowledge and how to deal with specific safety issues.

On a fundamental level, this book reveals two major flaws in our society: 1) capitalism often undermines democracy and 2) we do not teach students about the workplace and labor rights.  Instead of being prepared for a life of employment, students are often thrown into jobs at an early age and become socialized to accept a non-democratic workplace.  As Worthen points out, we think of workplace literacy as a way to retrain workers for a new post-industrial economy and not as a needed education in labor history, laws, and rights; however, labor education, unlike most other modes of traditional education, focuses on collective knowledge and increasing consciousness of the surrounding economic and social systems. 

Worthen also documents the long history of American employers fighting labor rights and the ability of workers to organize collectively.  Although labor history is often excluded from the school curriculum, workers keep their collective knowledge alive through informal educational methods, and yet workers today are constantly fighting a political system that sides with the employer over the employee.

Workers in the UC system could learn a lot from this book.   While half of the UC employees are unionized, the administration is not, and many workers fail to exercise the rights and privileges they already have.   Recent decisions about a new payroll system and online education appear to come out of nowhere because most employees do not exercise their right to have their voices heard. In order to counter this lack of workplace democracy, UC-AFT is promoting a new organizing plan called You See Democracy.  We hope to make the university a place where all workers have a voice. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Democracy Index for Higher Education

At the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) conference, I helped to lead a two-day workshop that has developed a new way to rate and rank universities and colleges.  In what we are calling a Democracy Index, each school will be assessed for its ability to promote democracy through its level of shared governance, pay equity, accessibility, affordability, and job security.  For example, we will analyze which faculty are able to participate in shared governance, including non-tenure-track faculty.  We will also look at the pay ratio between part-time faculty and full-time faculty and between faculty and the administration.

The guiding principle behind this index is the following: “Building on the ideals embodied in the political statements of past COCALs, we commit to a trans-national agenda whose goal is to shape an equitable and democratic future for higher education by continuing to build networks, coalitions and alliances across discipline, campus, international border, and industry sector, in order to democratize the workplace, the classroom, and the broader community.”  This mission statement will be applied to a study of the democratic level of higher education institutions in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. 

One of our central claims is that we cannot have democratic institutions of higher education if most of the faculty do not participate in shared governance or do not have stable jobs with fair pay, effective job protections, and academic freedom.  We have found that as universities and colleges increase their reliance on contingent faculty, the cost of administration goes up, and the level of shared governance goes down.  We also affirm that the lack of democracy in higher education reflects the lack of democracy in most other workplaces. 

By working with unions, professional organizations, and individual institutions, we hope to democratize higher education by informing the public about the close relation between teachers’ working conditions and students’ learning conditions.  We imagine a world where our Democracy Index will replace misleading rating systems like US News & World Report’s College Rankings and the Obama administration’s College Scorecard.     

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Power and Income Inequality in the UC System and Beyond

In looking at recent employment trends in at the university, we find that the there has been a significant increase in the number of highly compensated individuals.  In fact, in 2004, there were 1,890 employees making over $200,000 a year, and eight years later, there were 5,461. This tripling of highly compensated individuals occurred during a period of reduced state funding and a financial crisis that resulted in layoffs, a salary furlough, massive tuition increases, and system-wide budget cuts. Furthermore, in 2012, the university employed, 262,415 people for a total payroll of $11.2 billion, and the people making over $200,000 represented just 2% of the employees, but they earned 14% of the income. In contrast, during 2004, the people earning over $200,000 represented less than 1% of the workers, and they took in 7% of the income. Just like the rest of the American economy, the trend thus has been to concentrate income at the top.

If we look at who the high earners are in the UC system, we discover that they are medical faculty, administrators, athletic coaches, law professors, business professors, and graduate faculty.  Almost none of the employees have anything to do with undergraduate education and none of them are unionized.  In contrast to this group of highly compensated individuals, we find the majority of teachers and workers who receive moderate incomes and are mostly unionized.   One thing then to learn from this example is that unionization is clearly not driving tuition increases, and in the case of undergraduate instruction, wages have remained stable, but they have not kept up with the huge increases of the top earners. 
Looking at the Office of the President, we find some surprising statistics.  We have been told that since 2009, there has been a major reduction in the number of employees and the cost of running the central office, but, we find that in 2008, there were 2,243 employees for a total gross pay of $155 million, and in 2012, there were 2,093 employees for a total pay of $155 million. So, the number of employees went down, but the cost stayed the same, and this is due in part to an increase of people making over $200,000.
As income gets concentrated at the top in the UC system, so does power.  The growth of the administrative class is coupled with an increase in the number of faculty hired outside of the tenure-track system.  According to the recent UC Accountability Report, in 1998, there were 7,250 full-time equivalent (FTE) tenure-track faculty on the general campuses and medical programs, while in 2013, there were 8,914; meanwhile, the number of non-tenure-track faculty (lecturers, visiting professors, clinical non-tenure) went from 4,511 FTE in 1998 to 7,638 FTE in 2013.  This means that during this period, the number of tenure-track faculty went up by 1,664, while the number of people off the tenure track went up by 3,128.  Although these figures do not include graduate student instructors and post-docs, it is clear that the majority of the people teaching and researching at the university have very little role in shared governance.  In fact, national studies show that as the number of faculty off the tenure track increases, the number of administrators increases, and the level of shared governance decreases.

Like the rest of America, the increase in income inequality and the number of highly compensated managers is coupled with a decrease in job security and compensation for most workers.  This transformation is also tied to a reduction of workplace democracy as a result of de-unionization, de-professionalization, and the growing disparity between the highly compensated managers and the part-time, flexible labor force.  In order to reverse these trends, we have to fight for increased democratic participation in the workplace through the creation of more stable jobs and a growing role of all workers in the decision-making process. Moreover, unions have to bargain for more democracy in the workplace and reduced income inequality.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Employment for College Grads after the Recovery

According to an Inside Higher Ed article on a new government report, “Four of five students who graduated college in 2008 were able to find some sort of employment in the four years after their graduation, despite entering the work force during the worst of the economic recession, a federal report shows.” This very positive reading of the report has to be put in context.  First of all, the study is only looking at people who graduated from four-year institutions, not community colleges or for-profit schools.  Second of all, out of the 82% who have jobs, 84% have full-time jobs, so that means that 31% of all of these recent grads with degrees from four-year institutions were either unemployed or worked half time or less.  Moreover, 10% of the employed were actually back in school.

One important issue that the report fails to examine is whether these students with bachelor degrees are working at jobs that traditionally require these degrees.  We know from general labor trends that over 25% of the people working now who have earned college degrees are working at jobs that used to only require a high school degree or less.  The government web site does tells us that 22% of the sample were in jobs not related to their college major, 40% were in jobs  closely related to their major, and 31% had employment in jobs somewhat related to their majors.

A major problem with the study is that it relies mostly on self-reporting and a 17,00 person sample that skews white and female.  73% of the respondents were white and 58 were female.  Moreover, 73% had graduated before the age of 24.  Also, 32% graduated from private universities, and so this sample does not look like most students who are now enrolled in higher education.  

Within this rather selective group of graduates (remember less than 60% of the students at these institutions ever graduate), after four years, the median salary for a full-time worker was $46,000 and the median salary for a part-time employee was $20,000.  So half of the 69% (34%) of the recent college grads with full-time jobs with bachelor degrees from this selective sample were making less than $46,000 a year, and another 16% were making less than $20,000.    

The report also tells us that in four years after graduation, 39% had one job, 34% were on second job, and 28% have had three or more jobs.  In other words, there is a high level of job movement, which resulted in the finding that the average student in this sample spent 10 months out of the labor force in four years.  We are thus a far way from the opening claim that four out of five recent graduates had jobs.  Like so much reporting on employment, general claims have to be analyzed at a much deeper level in order to get the real story.  A more accurate summary of this report would say that out of the select group of students who graduated in 2007-8 from four-year institutions, 61% presently had full-time jobs with a median salary of  $46,000, while the rest of these graduates were making a median salary of $20,000 or less. Of course, these stats do not include the vast majority of students who are either at community colleges or who will never graduate.