I have recently started work on my new novel “Walkout”. It is a fictionalized memoir set in England in the 1960’s and includes a strong focus on management – labor relations that existed at that time. Back then most improvements in worker employment conditions were fought for by the unions at the negotiations table. Wage increases, paid vacation, equal pay, the forty hour work week, consultation rights, retirement benefits were just some of the improvements that came from this battleground.
President Obama today talks about granting “paid” family leave time and sick leave to workers here in the US. I applaud the initiative in so far as it permits employees to attend to their family obligations without loss of pay. Whether or not it will increase the success and productivity of the worker in the work place can be debated but it most certainly should improve their quality of life. The United States is one of very few countries that do not legislate for minimum protection of worker benefits. As well as paid leave, as a transplanted European, I still cannot comprehend how an employee can be left without compensation when laid off by the employer for reasons that are not the cause of the employee. Recently someone mentioned to me a friend who had nearly 30 years of service with a firm that decided to move from California to the mid-west. She received nothing in compensation. This would not occur in many developed countries and it seems out of line here in America. To be fair I must acknowledge that there are companies in the US that do voluntarily provide layoff compensation and assistance with outplacement to their displaced employees. But more needs to be done.
Looking back on my experiences 50 years ago I see parallels with today. The issues back then around the bargaining table were that union demands typically carried a price tag. Where this price tag was high the employer would frequently resist concessions for fear of undermining its competitive position with similar firms in the market place. Where bargaining took place at the multi-employer level, this was less of an issue although individual members would object and sometimes discontinue membership. The union(s) would then organize work stoppages, overtime bans, work to rules, etc. to leverage the firm to concede.
Today, with the declining influence of third party representation, particularly in the private sector, US companies, in my opinion, are much more likely to allow financial considerations to take precedent over the welfare of their workers when it comes to social benefits. The fear is that a benefit conceded out of line with the rest of its industry will create a competitive disadvantage. The answer in my humble view is to legislate across all fields of employment a “minimum” level of social benefits that the people of the United States believe should be the inalienable right of all workers. We do this for the minimum wage, why not also for minimum social benefits?