by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 27, 2014
CAN WORKERS SURVIVE THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's becoming clear that one of the major issues in the 2014 elections will be raising the minimum wage and providing paid sick time for workers.
That we have to fight for something as basic as paying a worker a reasonable wage, or giving them time off with pay if they are ill, speaks volumes about the state of America today.
But something else is happening to the U.S. workforce that may render both of the issues moot - the steady increase of part-time and temp jobs where workers rarely get paid the minimum wage and have no labor protections or job security.
According to Kelly Services, the nation's leading temp agency, 44 percent of U.S. workers classify themselves as "free agents." This wouldn't be a bad thing if there were plenty of jobs and workers had the flexibility to market their skills to the highest bidder, or if workers could afford to work less and still enjoy a reasonable standard of living.
Neither is possible today.
"The disappearance of jobs in America has as much to do with the power of global capital to move where and when it wants and the ability, post-crisis, of businesses to squeeze more and more productivity out of the few workers they keep, as it does with technology making certain professions obsolete," wrote labor reporter Sarah Jaffee for In These Times magazine.
"And the rise of the 'free agent' worker has at least as much to do with the desire of businesses to have an easy-hire, easy-fire, just-in-time workforce that absorbs ... most of the labor costs, as it does with workers who simply enjoy the freedom of not having a boss. Power is as big or bigger a force as technology in shaping the labor landscape today," she wrote.
Jaffe is correct that power, political power in particular, is a big reason we have an economic system that rewards employers for exploiting their workers while punishing workers who attempt to fight back.
Take the newest trend in labor, "crowdworking," which as Moshe Z. Marvit described it in the Feb. 24, 2014, edition of The Nation, is "the low-wage virtual labor phenomenon that has reinvented piecework for the digital age ... the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed."
The crowdworkers do the grunt work behind the scenes of the boomiong Internet. Amazon in particular has raised it to a high art with what they call "the Mechanical Turk," after the fortune-telling machines you used to see in arcades.
"Currently, computers are very good at certain sorts of tasks, such as identifying spelling errors, processing raw data and calculating financial figures," Marvit wrote. "However, they are less able to perform others, such as detecting a positive or negative bias in an article, recognizing irony, accurately reading the text off a photograph of a building, determining if something is NSFW (not safe for work) or discerning among ambiguous search results. "This is where the 'crowd' comes in," Marvit writes. "In the current iteration of crowdworking, individuals are tasked with those parts of a job that a computer cannot perform. This work is used both to fill in the blanks and to train the computer algorithm to do a better job in the future."
In short, crowdworking is good for the Internet, and bad for workers, since they are categorized as "independent contractors," meaning that they are not legally entitled to minimum wage, overtime pay, workers' compensation, or unemployment insurance.
"Inside the machine, there is an overabundance of labor, extreme competition among workers, monotonous and repetitive work, exceedingly low pay and a great deal of scamming," sayss Marvit. "In this virtual world, the disparities of power in employment relationships are magnified many times over, and the [FDR-era] New Deal may as well have never happened."
In theory, workers can pick and choose the tasks they wish to do and set the wage they will do them for, but the intense competition drives down wages. On average, crowdworkers earn the equivalent of $2 per hour, and many earn even less than that.
If that's the future of work - a race to the bottom accelerated by technology - the American worker will be doomed to long hours, low pay, and a short, nasty and brutish life.
What would a better system look like?
Start with the idea of a universal basic income, also known as a basic income guarantee, or BIG. What if the standard deduction on our income tax forms were eliminated and every citizen was, instead, guaranteed an annual stipend equivalent to a$10,000 tax credit for each adult and $2,000 tax credit for each child?
Or, how about a guarantee that every adult able to work would have a job in the public sector? That was the premise behind the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s. Not only would this provide the labor to do the massive amount of needed repair and replacement to public infrastructure, it could provide a benchmark for pay and benefits that private employers would have to meet, which would increase pay for all workers.
Or, to create more jobs, shorten the work week to 30 hours, so that workers could actually reap the benefits of redistributed wealth in the form of more free time to do what we will.
These are big, radical ideas that will require power - political power in the form of organized and energized working people in numbers that can overcome corporate power at the ballot box.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.