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Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Road Back to Serfdom

Today's robber barons have little interest in long-term, full-time employees.
Here I am
In working prime,
But all the jobs
Are just part-time.

The ancestors of many Americans came here to escape mingy monarchs, oppressive priests, and baleful barons who controlled all aspects of communal life back in their countries. They bravely left everything they knew behind in a quest for freedom.

OK, so slaves didn’t exactly come here in search of their freedom and nor did migrant farm workers. But this freedom business is something of a religious creed for what Bill O’Reilly likes to call “traditional America.”

And the truth is that we do have freedom today. We’re free to be poor, uninsured, and exploited. Not surprisingly, any mass of immigrants contains a number of up-and-coming new barons, and ours soon climbed the ladder of avarice, just like back home. Compare that to what happened in Europe, where the repressed, close-knit working classes, upon finally achieving political power, generally took much better care of their own.

Sure, there have been inspiring exceptions, such as the advent of the New Deal and the several decades of declining economic inequality that followed it. But in America you’re basically on your own and our homegrown barons once again hold all the cards. They buy enough influence in Congress and state legislatures so that they needn’t pay you or Uncle Sam very much. And they can beat you down in the courts if you organize to fight back.

Republican filibusters have prevented filling vacancies on that brilliant legacy of the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Board. Budget cuts there had already stymied the panel’s actions, before a recent court ruling that jeopardizes all of the NLRB’s work during the past year.

One of the better things about the Affordable Care Act is its requirement that employers of firms with at least 50 workers provide their employees with health insurance. However, our lax labor laws are too toothless to prevent employers from using this as an excuse to cut their workers back to 29 hours per week. That’s what Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn Steakhouse chains has threatened to do.

Plus, many states have now passed so-called right-to-work laws that gut the power of unions to operate. Not coincidentally, wages are 3.2 percent lower in those states than the rest of the country, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Washington even exports this corporate crusade against labor rights. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund spread the “race to the bottom” to every nation where they operate.

Today’s barons have little interest in long-term, full-time employees. Even in traditionally labor-friendly France, 82 percent of new hires are on temporary contracts, The New York Times reports. In our own country, part-time work is also the new normal, paired with low-wage jobs and hours subject to change without much notice.

The solution to an individual worker in these dire straits might be finding a new job. Unfortunately, the big job growth is mostly in fields dominated by low-income opportunities. 

Home health aides, nursing home workers, fast food servers, store clerks, hotel maids, farm hands, food processors, and security guards are all promising career paths if you want to be sure you’ll have a job tomorrow. It just might not be a good job.

At least in America you’re quite free to start your own business. That way you can go hungry at your own pace. As Mitt Romney says, this is easy if you just borrow the start-up costs from your parents.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.