A Moral Economic System: Beyond Labor Day 2017
Labor Day has come and gone in 2017. What began as a nationwide day to recognize the contributions and trials of American workers has become, in most ways, the last three-day summer weekend consisting of cookouts and festivals and trips to school supply stores to fill carts with pencils, notebooks, and lunch boxes.
This year, Labor Day was also shadowed by the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey and the threat of an even more devastating category five storm making its way from Africa across the Atlantic, heading for the Caribbean, most likely Florida, and beyond. These climatic weather events — along with the news of a looming presidential announcement about the insecure future of thousands of young people in the DACA program — focused attention away from issues like the gender pay gap, family leave, and affordable childcare.
In the midst of the always-hyperactive news cycle there were, however, timely articles and op-ed pieces — notably in the New York Times — that lifted up the status of working women in this country. And the news is not favorable.
In the business section, in a story on economic trends, reporter Neil Irwin told of two female janitors at two major companies, then and now. He laid out, in great and grave detail, the differences between the work story of Gail Evans, who cleaned offices at Eastman Kodak’s campus in Rochester, New York in the 1980s, and Marta Ramos, who is employed to do the same work at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California today.
As Irwin reports, “The $16.60 that Ms. Ramos earns as a janitor at Apple works out to be about the same in inflation-adjusted terms as what Ms. Evans earned 35 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end.”
The difference results from what Irwin identifies as a new management theory that has been widely embraced, to focus on core competence and outsource the rest. While making companies possibly more productive and clearly more profitable to share holders, at the same time, he points out, it has fueled inequality and economic struggle for working class Americans, many of them women.
As a full-time employee of Kodak, Ms. Evans’ received generous paid vacation, a bonus payment every year, some cash assistance for college tuition and, when the campus she cleaned shut down, help in finding another job cutting film.
Ms. Ramos, on the other hand, is not an Apple employee. She works for a contractor that does not provide for vacation, so she hasn’t taken one in years because she can’t afford to lose wages. There are no bonuses, tuition assistance, or possibility of finding another position at Apple.
The Kodak employee was able to leverage her subsidized training and subsequent college degree to secure a professional-track job in information technology. The Apple employee may eventually become a janitorial team leader, which pays an extra 50 cents an hour.
For one woman, cleaning floors was a start. For the other, that work is also a ceiling.
This op-ed piece describes, in thoughtful detail, the consequences of a corporate structure and culture in which success are achieved by streamlining its direct workforce and bidding out the rest. The smaller the employee count, the bigger the profits. But also, the fewer benefits and opportunities for advancement.
Another piece published this Labor Day weekend in the New York Times, by Nation Magazine opinion writer Bryce Covert, proposed that participation of American women in the workforce peaked two decades ago at 60.3 percent in April 2000. Before World War II, he reminded us, women of color and single women “almost always worked,” with a large influx during the time when so many men were away on the battlefields.
In the decades following, Covert observed, the gender gap shrunk, education levels for women rose, and the availability of contraceptives allowed women more control over their reproductive lives and therefore their careers.
The rise of percentage of women in the job force came to a halt in the new millennia. Today, the number is just over 57 percent. For college educated women, having a degree has become less and less an advantage. Husbands’ wages grew faster than that of their wives in the 1990s, the gender gap discouraging more and more women from staying at work. For lower wage women, working conditions have gotten worse: erratic schedules, later hours, expensive or unavailable childcare, and lack of paid family leave.
The United States is now 17th in female labor force participation in the developed world, falling precipitously from ninth in 1990. There are 12.7 million more women without paying jobs than in 2000.
The countries whose women are in the workplace in higher percentages are gaining still, due in part to paid family leave, subsidized childcare, and flexible work arrangements.
Last June at our UUA General Assembly, the latest statement of conscience on escalating economic equality was passed overwhelmingly. The statement recognized that women are especially vulnerable to economic inequity, with “a gender pay gap that has life-long financial effects and contributes directly to increased poverty levels for women of all ages, races, and cultural backgrounds.” It also identified access to paid family leave and other economic support for those who care for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities — and comprehensive reproductive health services — as key to a moral economic system.
The UUWF remains committed to intersectional economic justice and the collective and individual actions needed to make this a reality.