A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Labor, popularity and family

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Sept. 5, 6 or 7

Labor Day came and went this week, with family cookouts, stowing of summer wear, and union parades, and it’s a time for reflection of how Americans regard organized labor, what unions have meant to the nation, and what family really means to the anti-union crowd.

More than half of Americans approve of labor unions, according to polls by Gallup and Pew. The 52% (Gallup) or 51% (Pew) favorable view is up considerably from just 2011, when Pew measured a 41% approval rating. Maybe more significantly, that 51-52% figure is four times the rate that Americans approve of Congress. Using six different polls by places ranging from Gallup to Fox News, Real Clear puts Congress’ job approval rating at 15.2%.

That could be because citizens notice how lousy Congress has been, of course. But it also signals that most Americans have come to realize the value of unions and what organized labor has done. Among many achievements, labor was vital for these 10 reforms:

1. A minimum wage
2. The 8-hour day
3. Overtime pay for more than 40 hours a week
4. Protections against child labor
5. Sick days
6. Safer jobs and workers comp when employers are negligent
7. Health insurance, pensions and other benefits
8. Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act
9. Due process, which protects unionized workers from being fired without just cause
10. The weekend (Great slogan: “The Labor Movement – the folks who brought you the weekend”?)

True, enforcement has eroded in the last few decades, but breakthroughs enable improvement.

That leads to improving workers’ lives off the job. Politicians’ use of the term “family values” for years focused on judgmental attitudes toward the bedroom, parental behavior and work when it touched on conservatives’ preference for stay-at-home moms.

Rarely did “family values” candidates connect the opportunity to be a full-time parent with a full-time job from one breadwinner being sufficient for a family, or concede that an unregulated economy obsessed with short-term profits damages society. And virtually nonexistent in all the political posturing was the tie between decent wages and benefits, job security and union representation on the one hand, and the stability of marriage and a solid family on the other.

Of course, it’s no surprise to American wage-earners that lousy pay, unsafe jobs and insecure employment hurt people personally and emotionally as well as financially.

In the last few decades, people have been adversely affected by the decline of stable, unionized, full-time jobs with health insurance and pensions – especially people without college degrees. So everyday working-class Americans are now less likely to get married, stay married and have their children within marriage than those with better jobs, according to a new study from the University of Virginia and Harvard University.

“Working-class people with insecure work and few resources, little stability and no ability to plan for a foreseeable future become concerned with their own survival and often become unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others,” said Sarah Corse, a Virginia sociology professor and the study’s lead author. “Insecure work changes peoples’ non-work lives.”

The research, “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” was presented last month after researchers interviewed a representative sample of Americans, who showed that people living in insecure and unstable employment situations have difficulty being trustful of possible partners because of their feeling of the risk of betrayal, said Corse’s co-investigator, Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva.

Such working people also find it difficult to meet financial obligations and may feel that the emotional and psychological commitment required by marriage is too great a demand on top of other challenges.

Wages for the non-college-educated have fallen dramatically in the United States as manufacturing work has been outsourced to other countries, greatly reducing the number of good-paying union jobs with decent benefits, Corse and Silva show.

“These are foundational changes in the labor market for the working class, and they broadly affect people’s lives,” they said. “Our interviewees without college degrees expressed feelings of distrust and even fear about intimate relationships, and had difficulty imagining being able to provide for others.”

Largely responsible, profiteering corporations may not be “family values” assailants such as gangs (well, not exactly anyway), or welfare dependent (well, not exactly), or wasteful and extravagant (again, not exactly). But by using campaign contributions to influence public officials and candidates who want to be officials, Big Business rigged the system and now blames the victims.

Maybe by next Labor Day, jobs will be better, wages will be higher, and families will be stronger around the backyard grill.

[PICTURED: Graphic from]

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