Jim Scofield

Jim Scofield

Our country needs to move toward sectoral bargaining for workers, where employees try to organize and bargain wages and benefits on a national basis, as is done in many advanced democracies. Organizing and bargaining with one particular, usually local, business of a giant chain doesn’t work.

Organizing one McDonalds or Burger King or one Walmart is almost impossible, given their ad-hoc hiring practices and the over-hiring which leaves the work force weak and vulnerable.

National chains successfully oppose any local unit’s workers’ attempt to organize, often just closing one that does and reopening elsewhere.

Because of sectoral bargaining, 98% of French workers are covered by a bargained contract, but only 7.7% of American employees. Our workers have little power.

American corporations have used laws (starting with Taft-Hartley, 1947), free-trade agreements with low wage countries, or moving to anti-union areas such as the American south. They hire special companies to combat unions, and they outspend labor on lobbying and political campaigning (16 to 1 in the 2016 campaign, Center for Responsible Politics). Public employees, including teachers, usually aren’t allowed to strike.

They also intimidate or even fire pro-union employees. Corporations own our press, often suppressing awareness of issues well known in other countries. All daily newspapers have business sections, but no labor sections. Until Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, national health care wasn’t taken seriously, although it existed for decades in almost all wealthy democracies where it was always popular.

Look at the problems for our workers. “The United States is the only advanced democracy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation, paid or unpaid, and the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid sick days. In contrast, the European Union’s 28 nations guarantee workers at least four weeks’ paid vacation” (Steven Greenhouse, “Yes, America is Rigged Against Workers,” New York Times, Aug. 3, 2019).

Notice much discussion in our press of such comparisons? Notice any discussion about lowering our work week, 40 hours since 1930s, to 30 hours, despite our huge productivity gains since then?

Now the trend has been to pressure more than 40 hours work. Too many must work extra jobs to make ends meet.

U.S. workers labor about five weeks more a year than in comparable countries.

Corporations, Uber is a current example, hire workers as “independent contractors,” with no real commitment to consistent employment or rights. Most American college teachers are now adjuncts, in a similar position. Not good for them or education.

No wonder wages have stagnated over the last 50 years, while the wealthy have been able to highjack most of our productivity gains, in this increasingly unequal country.

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed that large corporations include 40% representation of employees on their directors’ boards. In Germany, it’s 50%.

This gives not only workers some say in their businesses, but harmonizes employer-employee relations in working together.

Some American businesses are owned, in whole or part, by their employees, who can feel a real part of their company, rather than being bossed by authoritarian executives.

Our national minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, is a poverty level pay. Popular uprisings in some states and cities has forced it higher, to advance towards as high as $15 in some cities like New York. Still not particularly high, especially in those cities.

Uprisings like this can succeed, and is a type of sectoral bargaining, but is hard to sustain in informal groups. Denmark’s McDonalds’ employees get over $20 an hour, and better benefits. Burger prices are about 15% more. If American workers had continued to receive their share of the productivity gains of our economy of the last 50 years, their wages would be about $20 an hour, too. And America would have some greater degree of economic, social and even political equality and fairness by now.

Gallop polls show that 64% of the public approve of unions and that 50% of non-union workers would vote to join a union. Corporations have too much power to allow the popular will to prevail, though. Unions are stronger in other countries, in Europe and Canada, because they have better political backing, as Labor in Britain or social-democratic parties elsewhere. Union organizing in the U.S. has a history of brutal suppression by business and government.

Some parts of the auto industry are still relatively local, so the current 50,000 worker GM strike may be effective. But, mostly, big employee businesses, such as fast-food, are national. Even sympathy strikes in America are illegal.

Employees would benefit from sectoral, national bargaining. Now power in America is too much controlled by the minority, the owners, not the majority, the workers. Sectoral bargaining would provide Americans more of a balance of power, economically and politically.

Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johnstown.

Recommended for you