Life In the USA
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
* Marian Baird
is a Senior Lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies at the University
of Sydney and currently on study leave in the USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
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