Listening to What Workers Say

This week in North Philly Notes, Roberta Iversen, author of What Workers Say, provides stories and voices from the labor market on the chronic lack of advancement.

A common question when meeting someone new is asking them, “What do you do?”

People’s work, and the labor market more broadly, occupy millions of people’s lives in the U.S. and around the globe. But why is “What do you do?” often the first question? Of course it’s partly because most people need the money that work provides—and often need more money than their particular labor market job offers. It’s also because what we “do” is often shorthand to others for “who we are.”

Yet “who we are” does not begin to touch the lack of opportunity in many of today’s labor market jobs, whether in manufacturing, printing, construction, healthcare, clerical work, retail, real estate, architecture, or automotive services. These are occupations and industries that have employed nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce since 1980, as workers in these areas since the 1980s until today vividly describe in What Workers Say. I talked to 1,200-plus people at length for this book since the early 1980s, some of them repeatedly, regardless of what occupation they hold or industry their job is in. They have all recognized that there’s little to no opportunity for promotion or advancement in their jobs, despite the fact that people, their communities, their families, and their country as a whole, need what these workers do. At the same time, too many of them are also not paid a living wage.

The workers in the above-mentioned occupations and industries—regardless of socioeconomic characteristics—typify the types of struggles, discouragement, and on-the-job injuries that continue to affect millions of workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Just as Studs Terkel’s Working (1972) valuably introduced the populace to what many jobs and occupations were like across the U.S. up to the early 1970s, the workers in What Workers Say describe their jobs and occupations from 1980 to today—a period of rapid and tumultuous labor market change. For example, Tisha [a chosen pseudonym, like all of the worker’s names] in manufacturing, Joseph and Randy in construction work, and Kevin in a printing job, are among those workers who vividly illustrate the shift to service occupations from the earlier, higher-paying manufacturing occupations.

In one of the most dramatic examples of this shift, 40-year-old, African American, Hard Working Blessed, experienced multiple eye injuries on his manufacturing job, which resulted in demotion and severe wage reduction. He ended up as a Fast Food Manager, with lower pay and a job that did not make use of his extensive work experience in manufacturing. Clerical workers, such as Roselyn, Wendy, Ayesha, Susan and others similarly describe struggling with frequent recessions and layoffs over the period. Others, including Noel, Tom, and Shanquitta (for a period), describe frequent job disruptions and store closures from the increase in offshoring jobs to countries that pay workers even less than the U.S. does. And many healthcare workers, such as Laquita, Tasha, Martina, and Annie and others experience “credential creep,” where higher-level education became a hiring requirement, even though the demands of the job were suited perfectly to these applicants’ current credentials. This, of course, resulted in new forms of inequities in hiring.

In short, the workers tell the real story about today’s jobs so others can know what these jobs are really like. The richness and depth of the workers’ words help readers to understand that the formal definition of “unemployment” is very strict and does not cover many people who have been laid off or who aren’t able to look for work. Their words also illustrate the fact that since the 1980s there often haven’t been enough jobs for all who want labor market work, and that the default social policy response to low pay has been person-oriented: that more education and more skills are what is needed for greater equity in the labor market. In some cases, the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the low-pay issue, to the benefit of current workers, but not in all cases and not necessarily to the level of a living wage. These workers also vividly describe what they’d really like to be doing, which leads in the final chapter to a solution that I call “compensated civil labor.” 

Drawing on German sociologist, Ulrich Beck’s idea of civil labor, I add “compensated” to the idea of civil labor. Compensated civil labor expands what we think of as work, how we do work, and particularly, how we do paid work. Compensated civil labor would allow the many people like Teresa to work at her rental car company part-time and satisfy her “heart-string” (aka her passion) of part-time food catering to her church, children’s school, and community and also be compensated for doing it. Compensated civil labor could also enable expansion of the notion of “work” well beyond the labor market in ways that can tap into today’s workers’ desire to engage in environmental protection activities, broader family participation, community contribution, and the like. In short, compensated civil labor would mean compensating people for their non-labor-market work, whether by actual money, exchange, or other forms of compensation. Data in the 2000s from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics Survey and the Current Population Survey, together with numerous existing civic examples, aim to stimulate civic leaders, philanthropic foundations, educators and others to consider compensated civil labor, which could benefit workers, families, communities, and countries alike.

The origins of the Gender Wage Gap and The Cost of Being a Girl

This week in North Philly Notes, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, author of The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gapreveals her findings about how the origins of the gender wage gap begin as teens enter the workforce. 

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In the past few weeks, we have been bombarded with news from all over the world on gender inequality in the workplace. From Hollywood to media to politics, many sectors point to unequal pay in the workplace as well as other problems such as sexual harassment. Unequal pay has been a systematic problem of workplaces and women’s lives. A wide range of discipline and approaches have offered explanations to this persistent problem. Some have focused on the women and have argued the women have lower pay because of their own characteristics- they study different topics, have lower education, less job experience especially because they leave the workforce due to childcare and parental leave. Some have focused on occupational characteristics: women and men are concentrated in different jobs, different sectors and different positions. Women’s positions tend to pay less and have less authority. No matter how they looked at the pay, there always remained an unexplained portion: the cost of being a woman. As I studied these dominant theories, I sat at a coffee shop, where a teenage barista brought my coffee. It occurred to me at that coffee shop that we were looking at this problem all wrong. Even though the focus of the theories seemed different (workers vs. jobs), almost all the studies on the wage gap studied the same population: the adult workforce. However, work experience does not begin with the completion of formal education. Many teenagers work while still in school as working part-time while still school is a quintessentially American phenomenon. Therefore, work experience, and potentially the wage gap starts long before the start of “real” jobs. In The Cost of Being a Girl, I look at a substantial yet previously neglected portion of the workforce: teenage workers. Focusing on this group includes a previously understudied portion of our workforce to offer a more comprehensive understanding. More importantly, the teenage workforce is like a social laboratory: at these early ages these typical explanations of the wage gap “women have babies” “women leave the workforce” “women do more house work” are not relevant. If we look at 12-13 year-olds: they do not have spouses, they don’t have children. They are at the same education and skill level: what happens when we look at the wage gap?

  • Using NLSY data, I find that 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls have equal pay. Once they become 14 and 15, we see the emergence of the first wage gap which widens with age.
  • Some individual characteristics, such as race and age, exacerbate the wage gap. Age makes the wage gap wider—the older girls get, the wider the gap; African American girls have an even wider pay gap
  • The types of jobs are important too: girls remain in freelance jobs whereas boys move into employee type jobs. Even within employee type jobs, girls are put in positions to deal with difficult customers, do more aesthetic labor (buy more clothes to fit the look) and are less likely to deal with money.
  • Girls are expected as part of their jobs to buy the clothes and products they are selling to maintain the look of the company; as such, many girls end up accumulating credit card debt.
  • Among freelance jobs: girls tend to do babysitting. Through informal networks, their job description changes, includes unpaid hours and many other chores, whereas many boys who babysit have higher pay, little unpaid hours and clear job descriptions.
  • Experiments show that potential employers are not willing to give female babysitters raises: if she shows a connection to the child, and asks for money, she is seen as manipulative. If she does not show an attachment, she is seen as cold. Either way, care is seen in opposition to money, and asking for money is discouraged.
  • These early jobs also have long-term effects. With the longitudinal data set, I find that women, many years later, experience the effects of having worked as a teenager. Early work experiences benefit men but not women: results in lower pay for women. Especially girls who have worked in apparel sector report feeling overweight years later.
  • Girls are given mixed messages: they are told they can be anything they want at home and school but they are discouraged because they experience firsthand the problems of the workplace.
  • Girls are less likely to report serious issues in jobs like sexual harassment because they feel it is “not their real job.”

Telling the story of a bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry

This week in North Philly Notes, Ryan Patrick Murphy, author of Deregulating Desire, blogs about the flight attendants’s gains. 

In August 2016, flight attendants for United Airlines ratified a new contract that raised the top wage to over $71,000 per year. The deal provides pay and benefits that far exceed the standard for most jobs in the service economy. Whereas workers in restaurants and in big box stores can be forced into overtime at the last minute, United flight attendants get time and a half if they volunteer to work on busy days. Whereas those in retail and in fast food lose pay when business is slow, United flight attendants are guaranteed their monthly wage regardless of the demand for air travel. In an era when white men continue to out-earn other workers, the new United contract delivers a living wage to a majority woman workforce in which half of new hires are people of color.

deregulating-desire_smFour decades of tireless organizing allowed United flight attendants to lock in these gains. Since the middle of the 1960s, flight attendants have been on the cutting edge of social change. In an era when most middle class white women married and had children right out of high school, flight attendants – or stewardesses as the airlines still called them – stayed single, married later, and delayed motherhood. Living in the downtown areas of major U.S. cities, many stewardesses joined the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements, and helped transform dominant cultural ideas about love, sex, and kinship.  As people’s attitudes about sexuality changed in the 1970s, however, the economy failed to keep pace with the social transformation. On the one hand, most people’s families began to look more like flight attendants’, with people marrying later, having children outside of marriage, or choosing same-sex relationships. But on the other hand, the ideal of the traditional nuclear family became ever more important to the political debates of the 1970s and 1980s as phrases like “female headed households,” and “out of wedlock births” became means to blame poor women – and especially women of color – for their poverty.

Rather than avoiding these heated cultural debates, flight attendants made ideas about family and about sexuality the centerpiece of their union agenda. They built alliances with LGBT and feminist groups outside of the industry, and argued that a living wage, affordable health insurance, and a secure retirement should not be reserved for white men in heavy industry and in corporate management. Flight attendants’ new movement was immensely successful, and real wages for flight attendants at many airlines doubled between 1975 and 1985.

While the category of sexuality galvanized flight attendants, it also became the centerpiece of management’s effort to challenge the flight attendant union movement.  Business leaders in the airline industry – and among the Wall Street bankers who financed their operations – argued that a decade of rapid social change had undermined the values that had always made America strong. To alleviate the vast new economic pressures facing the middle class in the 1970s, managers pushed to restore those bedrock values: deferred gratification, personal responsibility, and hard work. Ordinary families’ stability, big business argued, rested on rolling back the cultural changes that flight attendants and many of their allies had initiated in the 1960s and 1970s. The new alliance between pro-business and pro-family activists presented a daunting challenge for flight attendants, and by the 1990s, unions at many airlines had been forced to forfeit many of their previous gains.

Deregulating Desire tells the story of this bitter conflict over sexuality in the airline industry. While it illuminates the challenges that flight attendants and all feminized service workers have faced as neoliberal reforms transformed their industry, the book shows that an ongoing commitment to feminist and LGBT activist movements has helped them maintain a heavily unionized workplace. As the recent victory at United Airlines demonstrates, flight attendant unions have delivered concrete economic resources for their members, resources that most workers – including much of the white middle class – lack in the 21st century. In an age when economic inequality is the centerpiece of national political debates, and when there is little concrete analysis of nuts-and-bolts efforts to fight economic inequality, Deregulating Desire documents flight attendants’ often successful struggle for workplace justice.

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