Worker rights are shaping up a key issue in 2020. Who has the best ideas?

From today’s New York Magazine:

Never before have I seen Democratic candidates do so much to woo workers and win over union leaders. Elizabeth Warren kicked off her campaign at the site of the famous 1912 Bread and Roses textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Julián Castro marched in Durham, North Carolina, with fast-food workers demanding a $15 wage, while Pete Buttigieg spoke outside Uber headquarters in San Francisco alongside drivers demanding to be considered employees. Joe Biden held his first official campaign event at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh. Kamala Harris has called for a raise averaging $13,500 for the nation’s schoolteachers, while Bernie Sanders has bolstered labor’s cause by using his email lists to urge supporters to join union picket lines.

Why all this sudden attention and affection for workers and unions — far more than I’ve ever seen during my nearly 25 years of writing about labor? Part of it is that this year’s Democratic candidates are doing what any smart politician would do when the field is so large — court one of the party’s largest constituencies, i.e., unions and their members. Part of it is that the candidates see that something is seriously broken in our economy: that income inequality, corporate profits, and the stock market have all been soaring while wages have largely stagnated for decades. Also, Democrats realize that a big reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 was that she didn’t show enough love to labor. The field seems to recognize that if a Democrat is going to win the presidency in 2020, the surest route is to win back the three longtime union strongholds — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that were key to Donald Trump’s victory. So the candidates have loosed a flood of pro-worker ideas, not just to make it easier to unionize, but to extend paid sick days and family leave to all workers, provide protections to pregnant workers, and safeguard LGBTQ+ Americans from discrimination on the job.

Four of them — Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rouke, Pete Buttigieg, and Cory Booker — have put forward remarkably detailed platforms of pro-worker and pro-union proposals, while Elizabeth Warren’s elaborate plan on trade goes far beyond what many union leaders have called for. Andrew Yang says his universal basic income will be a boon for workers, providing a lifeline to those who lose their jobs because of artificial intelligence and robots. Biden has been vague so far on labor matters, calling himself a union man and saying he supports a $15 minimum. Booker has introduced a fairly radical bill, the Worker Dividend Act, which would require corporations that do stock buybacks to pay out to their employees a sizable chunk of the money going to the buyback.

Considering how many candidates there are and how many proposals and speeches they’ve made, it’s hard to keep track of who stands for what — and which plans are substantively the most pro-labor. Below, I give grades to the Democratic front-runners, based not just on the positions they’ve espoused during the campaign, but also on their track records. (Some candidates seem to have discovered the cause of workers only after announcing that they were running for the presidency.)

Read the complete article here.

Lawmaker in Congressional hearing on bank CEOs’ pay: “It doesn’t look good”

From today’s CBS News Online:

Making their first appearance before Congress since the financial crisis a decade ago, the CEOs of America’s biggest banks told lawmakers their financial institutions are now smaller and are taking on less risk.

With Democrats in control of the U.S. House, banks and the men that lead them are facing renewed scrutiny over their practices and record profits.

Since the massive taxpayer-funded bank bailout in 2009, large U.S. banks have raked in $780 billion in profits — nearly five times the amount they paid in fines. “[N]o one has made out better than the CEOs,” Maxine Waters, D.-California, chair of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, said in starting the hearing. 

The financial giants represented at the gathering include seven of eight global “systemically important” banks, which paid a total of nearly $164 billion in fines during the last 10 years, according to a committee memorandum. Because their profits greatly exceed the penalties, Waters questioned whether banks view regulatory fines as simply the cost of doing business.

New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed to a litany of what she described as bank misdeeds, from JPMorgan’s failure to oversee its trading practices in 2013 to last month’s $25 million fine against Citibank for violating the Fair Housing Act. “I have concerns about how much things have changed,” she told the bankers. 

Ocasio-Cortez also questioned the fairness of a legal system that fines banks for legal violations but imprisons low-income people for relatively minor offenses. Mentioning that Riker’s Island is part of her congressional district, the lawmaker said: “I represent kids who go to jail for jumping a turnstile because they couldn’t afford a metro card.” 

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon responded by saying he did not support prison for turnstile jumping. He drew praise from the freshman lawmaker for JPMorgan’s decision last month to halt financing of private operators of prisons and detention centers.

The last time the panel convened such a hearing, the country was in recession and the CEOs had to explain taking billions in taxpayer bailouts. Banks have since by-and-large repaid taxpayers and bounced back to record profits.

Read the complete article here.

The $70,000-a-Year Minimum Wage

From today’s New York Times:

Staff members gasped four years ago when Dan Price gathered the 120 employees at Gravity Payments, the company he had founded with his brother, and told them he was raising everyone’s salary to a minimum of $70,000, partly by slashing his own $1.1 million pay to the same level.

The news went viral and provoked a national debate about whether efficient capitalism could have a heart. Some Americans lauded Price for treating employees with dignity. However, on Fox Business he was labeled the “lunatic of all lunatics,” and Rush Limbaugh declared, “I hope this company is a case study in M.B.A. programs on how socialism does not work, because it’s going to fail.”

So I came to Seattle to see what had unfolded: Did Gravity succeed or crash?

There were bumps, no doubt about it. A couple of important employees quit, apparently feeling less valued when new hires were close to them in pay. The publicity forced Gravity, which processes credit card payments for small businesses, to hire additional people to handle a deluge of inquiries. Worst of all, Price’s brother, who owned a stake in the company, sued and alleged that Price hadn’t consulted him on decisions.

For a while, it wasn’t clear that the gamble was going to pay off.

But eventually it did: Business has surged, and profits are higher than ever. Gravity last year processed $10.2 billion in payments, more than double the $3.8 billion in 2014, before the announcement. It has grown to 200 employees, all nonunion.

Read the complete article here.

L.A. teachers set to strike Jan. 10. Union says it has no plans for more negotiating

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

A labor agreement is not the only thing dividing the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers. One missing element crucial to coming together on a contract deal — and averting a strike — is trust.

L.A. teachers set to strike Jan. 10. Union says it has no plans for more negotiating

On Wednesday, the union representing Los Angeles teachers announced that its 31,000 members will walk out Jan. 10 and that it has no plans to return to the negotiating table.

The union announcement came one day after L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner portrayed his side as the reasonable party in the dispute and said he was willing to negotiate around the clock.

The two sides appear to agree on very little.

Union leaders seem certain that those running L.A. Unified have a secret plan to dismantle traditional public education in Los Angeles. District officials seem just as certain that the union has always been determined to strike, even before negotiations began.

The district declares itself in financial straits too dire to meet many union demands. The union says there is money available.

Read the complete article here.

One Reason for Slow Wage Growth? More Benefits, Sort of

From today’s New York Times:

One of the most perplexing questions about the nation’s economic recovery is why a tight labor market has not translated into faster wage growth. Part of the answer appears to be that American workers are receiving a growing share of compensation in the form of benefits rather than wages.

The average worker received 32 percent of total compensation in benefits including bonuses, paid leave and company contributions to insurance and retirement plans in the second quarter of 2018. That was up from 27 percent in 2000, federal data show. The rising cost of health insurance accounts for only about one-third of the trend. And the data do not include the increased prevalence of nonmonetary benefits like flexible hours or working from home, or perks like gyms and “summer Fridays.”

Best Buy, the electronics retailer, began in July to offer four weeks of paid time off to its employees, including part-time workers, to take care of family members. The company decided that paid leave was the best way to show appreciation for its employees, said Jeff Shelman, a company spokesman. “Our philosophy is that our employees are our most important asset, and we want to take care of them and allow them to take care of the people that matter most to them in their lives,” he said.

For many workers, the returns from one of the longest economic expansions in American history have been paltry. Wages have grown more slowly than the economy in the wake of the 2008 crisis, and faster growth in recent months has been offset by rising inflation. Between August 2017 and August 2018, the most recent available data, average hourly wages increased by 2.9 percent, but after adjusting for inflation, the increase was just 0.2 percent, according to the Labor Department’s flagship survey.

Read the complete article here.

The stock market boom has given CEOs a raise. What about average workers?

From today’s PBS News Hour:

Over the past few years, many economic indicators have returned to where they were before the Great Recession — among them, the unemployment rate, which has dropped below the 5 percent mark of 2007, housing prices and the stock market, which has nearly doubled its pre-recession peak.

Another, buoyed by rising stock prices: the enormous pay difference between CEOs of the largest U.S. companies and their employees, who earn more than 300 times less than those at the top, according to new data.

Here’s a closer look at the issue.

How has CEO compensation changed?

In 2000, the average CEO was paid 343 times more than the average worker, according to the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute. That number dropped to about 188-to-1 in 2009.

It has since rebounded to 312-to-1 last year, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.

From 2016 to 2017, the average pay of CEOs from the top 350 publicly traded firms increased 17.6 percent — to $18.9 million — even after being adjusted for inflation, the group found.

How to close the gap

The reason for the pay disparity between CEOs and employees is relatively simple. Closing the gap is much more complex.

A number of methods have been proposed to close the gap, including a cap on compensation, clawbacks for poor performance or executive misconduct, and, as mentioned previously, mandatory publishing of CEOs’ salaries.

James Galbraith, the director of the University of Texas Inequality Project who also served as an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, said U.S. companies should look to other countries where laws encourage business leaders to reinvest in their tangible products instead of their stocks.

Read the complete article here.

Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They’re Not.

From today’s New York Times:

U.S. unemployment is down and jobs are going unfilled. But for people without much education, the real question is, Do those jobs pay enough to live on?

These days, we’re told that the American economy is strong. Unemployment is down, the Dow Jones industrial average is north of 25,000 and millions of jobs are going unfilled. But for people like Vanessa, the question is not, Can I land a job? (The answer is almost certainly, Yes, you can.) Instead the question is, What kinds of jobs are available to people without much education? By and large, the answer is: jobs that do not pay enough to live on.

In recent decades, the nation’s tremendous economic growth has not led to broad social uplift. Economists call it the “productivity-pay gap” — the fact that over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only 12 percent. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.

American workers are being shut out of the profits they are helping to generate. The decline of unions is a big reason. During the 20th century, inequality in America decreased when unionization increased, but economic transformations and political attacks have crippled organized labor, emboldening corporate interests and disempowering the rank and file. This imbalanced economy explains why America’s poverty rate has remained consistent over the past several decades, even as per capita welfare spending has increased. It’s not that safety-net programs don’t help; on the contrary, they lift millions of families above the poverty line each year. But one of the most effective antipoverty solutions is a decent-paying job, and those have become scarce for people like Vanessa. Today, 41.7 million laborers — nearly a third of the American work force — earn less than $12 an hour, and almost none of their employers offer health insurance.

Read the complete article here.

In America, wage growth is getting wiped out entirely by inflation

From today’s Washington Post:

Rising prices have erased U.S. workers’ meager wage gains, the latest sign strong economic growth has not translated into greater prosperity for the middle class and working class.

Cost of living was up 2.9 percent from July 2017 to July 2018, the Labor Department reported Friday, an inflation rate that outstripped a 2.7 percent increase in wages over the same period. The average U.S. “real wage,” a federal measure of pay that takes inflation into account, fell to $10.76 an hour last month, 2 cents down from where it was a year ago.

The stagnant pay comes despite accelerating U.S. growth, which has increased in the past year and topped 4 percent in the second quarter of 2018 — the highest rate since mid-2014.

The lack of raises have befuddled economists and policymakers, who hoped that after job openings hit record highs and the unemployment rate dipped to the lowest level in decades, employers would give beefy raises to attract and retain employees. But so far, gains have been slight, and small recent increases are now being eclipsed by rising prices.

Inflation hit a six-year high this summer, driven in part by a jump in energy costs. The price of a gallon of gas has increased 50 cents in the past year, up to a national average of $2.87, according to AAA. Some analysts expect the climb in energy prices to halt soon, which should bring the overall inflation rate down and possibly lift real wages slightly.

Consumers are also paying more for housing, health care and car insurance, the federal government reported Friday. Additional price hikes could be coming as President Trump’s new tariffs boost prices of cheap imported products U.S. consumers rely on. And many economists warn that growth might have peaked for this expansion.

Read the complete article here.

Further Thoughts on a Job Guarantee

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” Section by Paul Krugman:

As I wrote the other day, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may call herself a socialist and represent the left wing of the Democratic party, but her policy ideas are pretty reasonable. In fact, Medicare for All is totally reasonable; any arguments against it are essentially political rather than economic.

A federal jobs guarantee is more problematic, and a number of progressive economists with significant platforms have argued against it: Josh BivensDean BakerLarry Summers. (Yes, Larry Summers: whatever you think of his role in the Clinton and Obama administrations, he’s a daring, unconventional thinker when not in office, with a strongly progressive lean.) And I myself don’t think it’s the best way to deal with the problem of low pay and inadequate employment; like Bivens and his colleagues at EPI, I’d go for a more targeted set of policies.

But I’m fine with candidates like AOC (can we start abbreviating?) proposing the jobs guarantee, for a couple of reasons. One is that realistically, a blanket jobs guarantee is unlikely to happen, so proposing one is more about highlighting the very real problems of wages and employment than about the specifics of a solution. Beyond that, some of the critiques are, I think, off base.

Here’s the way some of the critiques seem to run: a large share of the U.S. work force – Baker says 25 percent, but it looks like around a third to me – makes less than $15 an hour. So offering these workers a higher wage would bring a huge rush into public employment, implying a very expensive program.

What’s wrong with this argument? The key point is that all those sub-$15 workers aren’t just sitting around collecting paychecks: they’re producing goods and (mostly) services that the public wants. The public will still want those services even if the government guarantees alternative employment, so the firms providing those services won’t go away; they’ll just have to raise wages enough to hold on to their employees, who would now have an alternative.

Now, that doesn’t mean zero job loss. Employers might replace some workers with machines; they would have to raise prices, meaning that they would sell less; so private employment might go down.

But all this is true about increases in the minimum wage, too. And we have a lot of evidence on what minimum wage increases do, because we get a natural experiment every time a state raises its minimum wage but neighboring states don’t. What this evidence shows is that minimum wage hikes have very little effect on employment.

So if we think of a job guarantee as a minimum wage hike backstopped by a public option for employment, we should not expect a mass migration of workers from private to public jobs.

Read the complete article here.

 

Robots or Job Training: Manufacturers Struggle to Improve Economic Fortunes

From today’s New York Times:

For Anthony Nighswander, rock-bottom unemployment is both a headache and an opportunity. For businesses and workers, it could be the key to reversing one of the country’s most vexing economic problems: slow productivity growth.

Mr. Nighswander is president of APT Manufacturing Solutions, which builds and installs robotic equipment to help other manufacturers automate their assembly lines. Lately, business has been booming: With the unemployment rate now below 4 percent, he says he gets calls every day from companies looking for robots to help ease their labor crunch.

The problem is that Mr. Nighswander faces a hiring challenge in his own business, especially because, in this town of fewer than 4,000 people near the Indiana border, the pool of skilled workers is shallow. But rather than turn to robots himself, he has adopted a lower-tech solution: training. APT has begun offering apprenticeships, covering the cost of college for its workers, and three years ago it started teaching manufacturing skills to high school students.

 “I never thought that I would be training high school students in our facilities,” Mr. Nighswander said. “What I knew was that I was in survival mode. I knew the orders for robots and for automation were coming in faster than I could get the jobs out.”
That kind of urgency could prove to be a powerful economic force. The investments in training and automation by Mr. Nighswander and his customers should, over time, make their companies more productive. Multiplied across thousands of companies, those decisions could have benefits for companies and workers that endure even after today’s hot economy inevitably cools.
Productivity — how much value the economy generates in an average hour of work — gets less public attention than more intuitive economic concepts such as employment and wages, but it may be even more fundamental.
Rising productivity — whether through better technology, more educated workers or smarter business strategies — is why people’s economic fortunes, on average, improve over time. When productivity growth is strong, companies can afford to pay workers more without eating into their own profit margins, letting a rising tide lift all boats.
Since the end of the Great Recession, however — and, to a lesser extent, even during the stronger economic times that preceded it — productivity growth has been confoundingly weak, forcing business owners and workers to compete over a relatively meager sliver of economic growth. There have been peaks and valleys, but not since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s has the American economy consistently delivered productivity growth above 2 percent a year.
Now some economists think a rebound could be on the way. For most of the recovery, wage growth has been anemic, suggesting companies faced relatively little pressure to invest in automation or to find other ways to squeeze more production out of workers. But as the labor market tightens, companies’ incentives could be changing.

Read the complete article here.