Archive for the ‘Labor Day’ Category

Women Who Work

rosie-the-riveterThe Labor Day news has been dominated by strikes at fast food restaurants, essays on growing income inequality in the United States and even reports about how increasingly unaffordable higher education is going to make the current generation less likely than their parents to climb into a comfortable middle class life.

All these challenges, and more, are worth the attention of policy makers and lawmakers was we mark another Labor Day, a holiday created in 1896, by the way, as an olive branch to workers by the anti-labor union President Grover Cleveland.  We should also add to our list of policy and societal concerns the continuing challenges and inequality that confront women in the work place.

Those fast food strikes aimed at a higher minimum wage are, as Slate points out, mostly about women. “This is a labor movement that is structured largely around the needs articulated by the working mothers in it, women who, with or without a partner, are often trying to raise families on minimum wage jobs. Women make up two-thirds of the fast food work force, and a quarter of workers are raising children.”

At the other end of the economic spectrum – the high end –  Fortune reckons that only 21 of the companies in the Fortune 500 are run by women. A 2011 report by Catalyst, an outfit that tracks “critical statistics to gauge women’s advancement into leadership and highlights the gender diversity gap,” found that only 16% of all Fortune 500 board positions where held by women. Fewer than 3% of companies had a woman chair the board of directors, only 1% – a decline from a previous study – had as many as 40%  female board members and 11% of the Fortune 500 had absolutely no women in governance roles. Predictably the numbers are even worse for women of color; 3% of board seats of the biggest companies in the United States are held by women of color and 70% of the Fortune 500 have no women of color at all in governance roles.

Some Idaho specific numbers to contemplate when next your order that Whopper from the woman behind the counter: the median income of a working woman in Idaho in 2012 was $18,772 – dead last in the nation with Utah and Montana ahead. (All these numbers are from the website USA.com.) And just to put that $18,722 in context, the poverty level – as officially calculated by the government – is $23,550 for a family of four. A working mom in Idaho who is bringing home the state’s median income and supporting a couple of children is, to say the least, struggling.

But Idaho must be doing better for women in the management and professional ranks, right? Not so much. Nearly 47% of the Idaho work force is made up of women, which is slightly below the national average and just over 35% of those women are employed in “management or professional” positions. That number puts Idaho well below the national average as the 49th state in the nation for women in more traditional “white collar” jobs. Idaho is just ahead of Nevada and Hawaii, states with a particularly high level of service oriented jobs due to their tourism based economies. Idaho’s regional neighbors do substantially as measured by a percentage of women working in white collar jobs: Utah is at 41 in the nation, Montana 28, Oregon 25 and Washington at 15.

So what’s going on here? From the highest reaches of corporate America to the neighborhood coffee shop women seem not to be sharing anything like parity in the work place with men and the gaps haven’t been closing much at all.

Hanna Rosin, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of The End of Men, says we’ve focused too much on the “wage gap,” the well-worn statistic that women only make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Rosin says there are many reasons for the wage gap, and many are not comforting, including the fact that women often work few hours a week than men, men more often belong to unions (and generally get paid more as a result) and, perhaps the big one, women, despite overtaking men in educational achievement, still gravitate (or perhaps are forced to gravitate) to generally lower paying jobs.

The bigger issues, Rosin says, are “the deeper, more systemic discrimination of inadequate family-leave policies and childcare options, of women defaulting to being the caretakers. Or of women deciding that are suited to be nurses and teachers but not doctors. And in that more complicated discussion, you have to leave room at least for the option of choice—that women just don’t want to work the same way men do.”

Author and educator Stephanie Koontz, who incidentally will speak at a major and sold-out Andrus Center conference on women and leadership this week at Boise State University, made essentially the same point in a New York Times essay earlier this year.

“Astonishingly,” Koontz wrote, “despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s birth or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total work force was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the F.M.L.A. turned out to be the inadequate end.

“Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of ‘work-family reconciliation’ acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.”

As an old friend use to remind me – “all things are political.” Whether its the paltry percentage of women in corporate governance in America, the unlivable minimum wage or work place friendly policies that impact working women and their kids, the public policy response to women who work has, as Stephanie Koontz says, not just stalled, but “hit a wall.” Even Barack Obama, who most thought would take major steps to correct the gender balance in major presidential appointments, has a record leaving much to be desired.

A couple of weeks ago the Nixon Library was in the news as it released the last of Richard Nixon’s White House tape recordings. Less notice was given to some 30,000 pages of documents from the Nixon years that were released at the same time. Two of the pages where a typewritten 1971 memo from Nixon staff assistant Barbara Franklin to White House political advisers Fred Malek and Jeb Magruder. Franklin had just been to a Washington, D.C. conference on the “status of women” – the delegates she wrote were not “radical feminists” but “establishment women” appointed by the nation’s governors – and she wrote excitedly about the standing ovation that had been given at the conclusion of remarks by a woman named Betty Friedan who had issued a stirring call for woman to seek greater political power. [Friedan's pace setting book The Feminine Mystique had been published in 1963.]

Franklin told Nixon’s political guys in the concluding lines of her memo, “I’m absolutely convinced the ‘women’s issue’ is gathering momentum. We should be listening and thinking!!” Unfortunately that is still appropriate advice to politicians 42 years later.

As Dr. Kootnz has written we need to “stop arguing about the hard choices women make and help more women and men avoid such hard choices. To do that, we must stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders.”

Women and minorities have provided the electoral power in the last two presidential elections, finally breaking one glass ceiling and putting an African-American in the White House. A woman may well be next and perhaps that will be, at long last, the catalyst for a policy agenda that really addresses women who work.

 

Putting the Labor in Labor Day

laborUnions Decline, China Rises…the Great Shrinking of American Manufacturing

David Letterman quips that Americans celebrate Labor Day by going out and buying stuff made in China. That would be funny if it weren’t so obviously true. A little weekend shopping – a new ice bucket (still can’t fathom what happened to the old one), a salad bowl and some tea candles – resulted in a handful of purchases all made in China or somewhere else. Not even one American-made product in the shopping bag.

Can America remain a global power without a manufacturing economy? I guess we’ll find out.

As the president rolls out a new plan to create jobs and address American infrastructure needs, the icy facts about the decline of the nation’s ability to plan, design and build things is hard to ignore, even as most in policy positions do just that.

Once upon a time Labor Day was about celebrating the American Labor movement. From Boston to Butte, from the IWW to the IBEW, unions fought, scrapped, lost and won battles that shaped the American economy. Not so much in the 21st Century. The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne connects the lack of American prosperity today to the great shrinking labor movement. A third of American workers belonged to a union in the prosperous 1950’s. The number is just over 12 percent today. I’ll leave it to the labor economists to connect the dots, if they can be connected – organized labor’s demise = decline in American manufacturing = a struggling U.S. economy = increasing separation among the very wealthy and the rest of our society.

As the American Prospect noted late last year, the U.S. lost 5.5 million – 32 percent – of all its manufacturing jobs from October 2000 to October 2009. More people are unemployed in the United States today than are employed in manufacturing. Since 2001, more than 42,000 American factories have gone the way of the dodo bird. Not resting, but dead. Meanwhile, China’s manufacturing economy is cited as a reason for a bump last week in the Asia stock markets.

Twenty-five years ago, Idahoans – in the legislature and at the ballot box – pulled the teeth of organized labor in Idaho. It was the nastiest, toughest, most consequential political fight in my time in the state. Conservatives won and the number of Idahoans who are members of labor unions declined by 50 percent. With those declines went the once not inconsiderable clout of organized labor to field political foot soldiers and contribute campaign cash. You can mark the steady decline of Idaho’s Democratic Party over the last 25 years to the passage of Right to Work in 1986, even as Cecil Andrus, an opponent of Right to Work and a favorite in the union halls, was returned to the governorship that year.

You can still get a debate going by asking whether Right to Work has been good – or not – for Idaho. Conservatives argue that job growth over those years proves that Idaho is a great place to do business. Others suggest that Idaho’s declining standing in wages, as compared to the rest of the country, proves that the law has been bad for workers. That debate will never be settled.

Writing in the Post, Harold Meyerson contends that the Great Recession has harmed American workers far more than their counterparts in Europe where organized labor remains strong and a substantial political force. The clout of American labor will continue to decline unless and until leaders of the movement quit doing the same thing over and over and hoping for different results.

Before I get typecast as nostalgic for the “good ol’ days” of shift changes, suds at the union hall and Labor Day picnics, I’ll offer the thought that union leaders must shoulder a good deal of the responsibility for the decline they so readily lament. They have often been tone deaf, cranky and unreasonable and restoring anything approaching their historic standing will require a new generation with new attitudes and tactics. We’ll see.

Still, on this Labor Day this much is true: for whatever reason(s), the American – and Idaho – economy is a lot different than it was a quarter century ago. Lots of “blue collar” jobs in traditional industries are gone forever. Chinese exports flood the U.S. market. Politicians make Labor Day speeches about rebuilding the nation’s economy, but you have to wonder, as another holiday designed to honor labor comes and goes, whether we can rebuild without building things – all kinds of things – again.


Happy Labor Day

guinessNot Particularly Important News…

This pint of stout will soon make sense. Trust me.

But before we turn to the Irish drink, a random, regional round-up of some not very important news (including nothing whatsoever on health care reform) on the last weekend of the summer.

From Oregon:
Let us acknowledge that Oregon was the first state in the nation to officially declare the first Monday in September as Labor Day. It happened, according to the Department of Labor, in 1887. Good idea, Oregon.

From Idaho:
A San Diego Examiner travel writer, Gary Robinson, writes this weekend about the tiny southeastern Idaho community of Franklin, Idaho (population 673) where he grew up. Robinson notes that since the beginning of the Idaho Lottery in 1989, Franklin has been a steaming hot bed of ticket sales. The Utah state line is just beyond the southern city limits, making Franklin the “home of the Utah lottery” and the Beehive State a chief supporter of school and public building construction in Idaho. We need the help.

From Washington:
The good news here is that the day after Labor Day will see the re-opening of the fabulous Seattle Public Library. Like most cities, Seattle has been struggling to close a budget gap and one tactic was to shut down the city’s libraries for a week. Budget sense, perhaps, but for bookish Seattle not an altogether popular move. As the Associated Press reported: “‘I think it’s a very sad day — week — for the city of Seattle that they can’t access their local library, which is one of the most heavily used libraries in the country,” said Nancy Pearl, the city’s ex-librarian superstar and the author of ‘Book Lust,’ a best-selling tribute to the joy of reading.'” If you get to Seattle, visit the downtown library. It’s almost always open.

And…From Montana:
Another closing – the M&M Bar in Butte – made headlines all across the Big Sky state. The ancient Butte watering hole once claimed it never closed, but a dispute over a power bill had thirsty patrons looking for another venue, temporarily we can hope, at which to raise a glass. I have a feeling those in need of a pint this weekend in Butte found an acceptable alternative. There are always options in Butte. Which brings me to that pint of Guinness.

The venerable Irish Times (a great website, by the way) had as the top story on Sunday Kilkinny’s fourth consecutive All-Ireland Hurling Championship. (Click here if you feel you need the details of the game or just want to be able to drop “hurling” details into your next cocktail chat.)

Delving a bit further into the Times reveals the “news” that the country’s health service is claiming that Irish adults consume “550 pints per year.” (No statistics readily available to compare those numbers to heavily Irish Butte.)

The Irish “strategic task force on alcohol” is quoted as saying that the 550 number “is a conservative figure given that abstainers are not excluded and represent about 20% of the adult population.”

What can you possibly say after that? The only thing I can think of: Guinness – it’s good for you! True in Dublin, in Butte, Seattle, Portland, Boise…even Salt Lake City.

If you’re looking for something to celebrate on Labor Day, you might celebrate all those you know who work hard, those out of staters who spend a buck on a lottery ticket once in a while, those readers who are concerned when the local library is closed and those who sip (in moderation, of course) an occasional pint. It is a great country, even without hurling.

Happy Labor Day.