Working Life – In the USA

By Marian Baird*

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Australia went fully down the American work and employment route? A few of my recent experiences and observations in this, the wealthiest of the first world countries, home of democracy and land of the brave and free, might help you to imagine.


First, there'd be almost no recognizable thing called industrial relations or unions. In the US now, only 8.5% of employees in the private sector belong to unions and 36% of employees in the public sector are unionists. The decline started in a big way in the early 1980's and it hasn't stopped. Today, unions representing workers in the private sector are almost non-existent, and as a result, each new generation of worker has less and less exposure to, or knowledge of, unions. Some labor sympathizers in the US dismally speculate that unionism in the private sector may have dropped below a critical level, from which recovery will be almost impossible without significant changes in the political environment, labor law and union strategies.

In addition, the Bush administration has begun to make the coffin for public sector unionism – and has recently hammered in the first nail. The newly formed Homeland Security Department, largely comprised of airport security personnel and customs workers – and who were formerly unionized – are now, in the name of US national security, no longer allowed to have union representation or to bargain collectively. That's about 50,000 unionists gone – in just one political move. Now that's democracy for you. This is a pattern usually associated with, and sounding disturbingly like, military dictatorships. As some have already noted, unionization didn't stop the New York firefighters or police from protecting and saving the lives of American citizens on 9/11. When will the conservative forces realize that commitment to unionism and to a good job and their community is not necessarily oppositional? Perhaps they never will – they just don't want to know.

Second, if we were to copy America further, there'd be no ‘safety net' of wages and conditions, or it would be set so low that the distance between the high wire called ‘working life' and the net, would be so great that the fall would kill you. The lack of strong unions is directly reflected in wage rates and that phrase, ‘land of the free', takes on a new meaning when it comes to the cost of labor in the US. For some employers it seems that labor is almost just that - free.

Let me tell you a little story. Last week I had a burger and fries at a cafe that has become an institution in Harvard Square, where students, tourists, academics and parents have a quick meal. Our waitress was a recent university graduate of the Boston district. She was white, middle class, educated, intelligent and helpful and she couldn't get another job despite her eminently attractive labor market characteristics. (Official unemployment is running at nearly 6 per cent in the area.) How much was she paid? I ask. Her answer: $2.65 an hour! I ask: How is this possible? Isn't the minimum wage $6.75 an hour in the State of Massachusetts? (The federal minimum wage is $5.15; in Kansas it is just $2.65!) Yes it is, but as a restaurant worker, if the employer can show that she will make up the rest of her hourly rate with tips, then this is perfectly legal. To quote the US department of Labor directly: ‘Tips actually received by tipped employees may be counted as wages for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act'. So, our waitress was dependent on our tip to supplement her $2.65 hourly wage, and in return, her employer gets very cheap labor. Well, that's fair isn't it? To cap it off, she must pay tax on an assumed income of $7.00 an hour. In addition, there is no mandated paid annual leave, no unfair dismissal legislation and no public health insurance. No wonder Americans are expected to be brave as well as free!

Third, any attempt to debate publicly, let alone make policy on, work and family issues would be thwarted. Here in the US, where a particularly male form of individualism has taken hold so strongly, and aided by an industrially weak workforce who has so little voice, these issues are typically portrayed as belonging to the individual (woman) alone. Work and family is barely on the national political agenda and it's also hardly on the union agenda. It is no surprise, therefore, that there is no national or state paid maternity leave legislation, except in a strange form in California where it is totally funded by employees. This makes Australia's comparability with the US on this issue, (being the only two developed nations without paid maternity leave), all the more embarrassing – how low can we go?
As the US gears up for another presidential campaign, there are many reminders of ‘Thatcherism' and ‘Reaganism' and the ‘trickle down theory' is taking hold again. But, as some Democrat presidential contenders have said – workers are sick of being ‘trickled on'. Maybe they're just being too polite for their own good. If they were Australian workers, I think I know what they'd say – and rightly so!

* Marian Baird is a Senior Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney and currently on study leave in the USA. m.baird@econ.usyd.edu.au

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