(originally published at http://politicalmoll.com/labor-dilemma/)
A recent article from The Nation reported on how “good” employers support companies with restrictive or harsh labor conditions. The article focuses on Costco and the recent protests found outside their store, not protesting Costco’s labor conditions, but one of their packaging suppliers, Pactiv (owned by Reynolds Group Holdings). The protesters were former workers of Pactiv who, after attempting to unionize, were fired from their jobs. The 100 protesters wanted Costco, who is admired for their treatment of their own employees as well as their suppliers, to cut ties with Pactiv. The event itself speaks on the larger issue of the lack of power the labor force has in the US.
Pactiv has a history of exploiting its workers, having employees suffer in “sweat-shop” like conditions. In one case, the
factory closed the windows on a hot day and refused to open them, even after an employee passed out from heat exhaustion. It was only after workers met with several union groups, drafting out their own proposals that Pactiv agreed to some concessions in exchange for no unions.
While Costco has a good track record with its treatment to its own employees, their relationship with Pactiv speaks on a larger issue when looking at the labor force in the US. As the author notes, Costco has no real reason to appeal to the strikers demands of cutting ties with their supplies, and if they do, Pactiv is a large enough corporation, and has dealings with other large corporations, to not feel much of an impact. So, how does the labor force defend itself and fight for proper working conditions?
Other corporations, like Starbucks, who are idolized as being a “fun” place to work, have been getting in trouble for their own labor issues. Many probably missed the recent New York Times piece on a single-mom who had trouble managing her life with the hectic schedule of closing shifts followed by opening shifts, known as “clopening.” Although the company hopes, with their announcement of stopping “clopenings” and one-week advanced scheduling, they can avoid any further disruption from their employees. Although unions don’t exist for Starbucks, many employees have pushed for them,
demanding better work environments and better pay for its workers.
Although Starbucks is noted for supplying health benefits, and its recent announcement of paying for tuition (that only goes to the last two years at a single online college), the company has been weakening the benefits over the years. Even with the announcement of the revised scheduling, there is still the potential of employees hours getting cut. Not to put all the blame on Starbucks – the corporation is playing the game that any other corporation in the fast-food industry is playing. It’s an industry with intense demands, fast-paced environment, and low pay. And this speaks on a larger issue to what options employees have in a growing minimum-wage or low-wage job market.
As is the issue with Pactiv, Starbucks and Whole Foods – who are seen as progressive companies – are no fans of unions. It becomes difficult to look at ways of helping workers when you have companies promoted as “forward-thinking” are portraying solutions as a burden to business. And when looking at the issues we’re facing and with the low-wage jobs becoming the norm, we need to look for ways to help strengthen worker’s rights.
Unions have proved to be very successful. In most countries they still are helpful in fighting for pensions, consistent work weeks, proper wages, and a voice for labor. In the US, the numbers of unions have dropped radically since the 1960′s. Although the amount of unions was never much higher than in the 30th percentile for private businesses (other countries have been as high as 95%), we are seeing the number of unions continue to drop. With the shifting of jobs overseas, dismantling of labor laws, and making it harder to form unions, we’ve continued to see unions fall. And without the power of unions, we see a loss of good wages, employee rights, pensions, and no overtime pay. And we’ve seen an increase in wage theft, and growing inequality.
Unions have a bad wrap in today’s world. Many consider employees of unions “lazy” or their union bosses as “thugs.” Although unions have in the past been corrupt, their corruption only came out in response to the economic system that was available to them. As with corporations and their leaders shifting the role from labor to capital, union leaders would follow suit in doing things that benefited them. It’s what the system allowed. Today unions are struggling to get a proper voice. With their heavy defeat of bargaining rights in Wisconsin, their two-tier system, and right-to-work laws, it’s become more difficult for them to advance labors needs.
Using unions as a solution to help employees for better rights is short-term. In the case of unionizing in Pactiv and Starbucks or any other large company would definitely help workers, but has a history of falling back into the pattern or working in tandem with the system it’s placed in: capitalism.
Another solution that is growing traction throughout the US, are co-op’s or worker run companies. First experimented with in the US in the 1970′s, it’s expanded into successful ventures. Co-op’s more recently have occurred when a company is leaving to go abroad or when it’s going out of business and the workers purchase the company. The model of co-op’s is very productive and provides benefits to the employees all having a voice, the community sees tax revenue from the workers salary, and the environment, as companies usually take pride in the place they live and take care of where to dispose waste and help the community thrive.
This type of operation is more long term and has many proponents speaking very positive of its growing trends. Economist Richard Wolff and historian and economist Gar Alperovitz, both wrote books on our economy shifting
more to a co-op economy. Although Alperovitz is cautious of co-op’s taking off right away, he does suggest that if the economic model doesn’t shift altogether with co-op’s, co-op’s can end up producing the same problems that we’re seeing
with companies in a capitalist economy.
It becomes apparent that it is a systemic problem. There is no one simple solution. Get rid of capitalism and retreating to another model just as quickly can produce a similar system with the same problems. And the truth is people are
realizing this model of capitalism is not sustainable. Millennials are becoming increasingly interested in other economic systems. And if we’re serious about helping out labor in a continually unequal world, and preventing companies like Pactiv from exploiting their workers, we have to look to solutions that work for everyone in a democratic form.