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work, the message appears to be that the notion of a stable job with benefits and a career is now considered to be out of date and undesirable.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.