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Workers of the world, curb your ambitions

Posted July 27, 2014, at 11:09 a.m.
D'Addario & Co.'s string-making plant in Farmingdale, NY, churns out more than 700,000 strings a day over three shifts. A worker watches over the largely automated machine.
Kevin G. Hall | MCT
D'Addario & Co.'s string-making plant in Farmingdale, NY, churns out more than 700,000 strings a day over three shifts. A worker watches over the largely automated machine.

A group of Democrats introduced legislation this week to protect low-paid shift workers from last-minute changes in their schedules. The idea fits into an intriguing category of economic activism: not trying to lift low-paid workers out of poverty, necessarily, but just trying to make their lives a little less miserable. The dim prospects of that campaign say a lot about the current moment in U.S. politics.

The shift-worker proposal is being pushed by CLASP, an organization in Washington that focuses on policies to help those with low incomes. Its other recent campaigns include a push to provide paid sick days to more workers and to create paid family leave. (In full disclosure, I have a friend who works for the group, and I think she’s pretty smart.)

Three things bind those ideas together.

The first is their modesty. Compared with a higher minimum wage, for example, or rules making it easier for U.S. workers to unionize, giving a new mother a few weeks of paid leave — partly funded through her own wages — isn’t exactly the equivalent of storming the Bastille.

The second common thread is an appeal to employers’ interests. These campaigns stress nobody wants to be served by a waitress with bronchitis, parents who get paid leave are less likely to quit and shift workers are more likely to show up if they have time to find a babysitter.

Despite that, here’s the third unifying theme. None of these ideas are likely to go anywhere anytime soon, at least federally — the measures have made headway in a handful of the nation’s bluest cities and states. This week’s legislation for shift workers garnered zero Republican sponsors; a family leave bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was referred to the Committee on Finance, where nothing happened.

The quick answer for that is, hey, this is Washington — nothing goes anywhere. But political gridlock doesn’t explain the reluctance of businesses to get behind these ideas or to nudge Republicans along. As James Surowiecki noted in last week’s New Yorker, that wasn’t always the case:

“Industrial magnates played a central role in the Progressive movement, working with unions, supporting workmen’s compensation laws and laws against child labor, and often pushing for more government regulation,” he wrote. “This wasn’t altruism; as a classic analysis by the historian James Weinstein showed, the reforms were intended to co-opt public pressure and avert more radical measures. Still, they materially improved the lives of ordinary workers. And they sprang from a pragmatic belief that the robustness of capitalism as a whole depended on wide distribution of the fruits of the system.”

Does that dynamic — the incentive for business groups to channel the pressure of social change into acceptable directions — still hold? Surowiecki says no, arguing that growing foreign sales mean the state of America’s middle class matters less to corporate profits, while the decline of socialism as an appealing ideology has drained the radicalism from populist reform movements.

The emphatically non-radical demands made by groups such as CLASP — “Treat us moderately better!” — coupled with the uncertain prospects of those campaigns suggest Surowiecki is right: Business groups and their allies in Congress can afford to ignore, even the most modest requests to improve the plight of the least well-off.

What’s unclear is how long that can remain true. Median household income in 2012 was 9 percent lower than in 1999. There are 7 million U.S. part-time workers who would like to be working full time. Companies’ stingy retirement benefits are a pending disaster. And, yes, just 1 in 10 workers get paid family leave from their employers. Yet corporate profits are at their highest level in at least 85 years.

If those trends continue, the right may look back at the push for slightly more decent working conditions as a useful compromise they should have embraced, rather than fighting every request and fueling populist demands for less conciliatory remedies — higher corporate taxes, for example, or an hourly minimum wage of $15 rather than $10.10, effect on the economy be damned. As Jerry Muller, a professor of history at Catholic University who studies the history of capitalism, wrote last year, “If nothing else, the enlightened self-interest of those who profit most from living in a society of capitalist dynamism should lead them to recognize that it is imprudent to resist parting with some of their market gains in order to achieve continued social and economic stability.”

Businesses and other conservative groups may feel comfortable ignoring these pleas now. And as my colleague Megan McArdle points out, the best solution to these problems is a stronger job market, which can’t be legislated or imposed. But that’s a poor reason not to take advantage of more modest fixes in the meantime. Social and economic stability takes compromise.

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, economics and taxation for Bloomberg View.

 

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