The Betrayal of Work

The Betrayal of Work by Beth Shulman

How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans


MYTH: Low-Wage jobs are the ones you see in your neighborhood McDonald's.

FACT: Fast food jobs constitute less than 5% of all low-end jobs. Low-wage, low-reward jobs are all around us and include: security guards, nurse's aides and home health-care aides, caregiver jobs, child-care workers and educational assistants, maids and porters, call-center workers, bank tellers, data-entry keyers, cooks, food preparation workers, waiters and waitresses, cashiers and pharmacy assistants, hair dressers and manicurists, parking-lot attendants, hotel receptionists and clerks, ambulance drivers, poultry, fish and meat processors, sewing-machine operators, laundry and dry-cleaning operators, and agricultural workers.

MYTH: Low-wage jobs are unskilled.

FACT: As important as these jobs are, most of us do not even notice them. When we do so, it is almost always in a negative light. In the public view, low-wage jobs tend to be lumped together and referred to as "hamburger flipper," insinuating both a lack of real skill and social value. Policy analysts and public officials refer to "low--wage, low-skilled" jobs as if the two terms were inseparable. This mistakenly assumes that if a job pays poorly, it must be because it does not call for many skills. In fact, these jobs require knowledge, patience, care and communication. Most of them require constant interaction with people, whether they are a patient in a health-care setting, a child in a day-care center, a guest in a hotel, a tenant in a commercial office building, or a customer in a department store.

MYTH: Most low-wage workers are teenagers, illegal immigrants or high school dropouts.

FACT: America's low-wage workers are mostly (nearly two-thirds) white, female, high school educated and have family responsibilities. Teenagers comprise only 7% of the low-wage workforce. Minorities and women are disproportionately found in low-wage jobs and occupy the lower rungs of the ladder within this workforce.

MYTH: Enduring the harshness of low-wage jobs is only temporary; since they are merely a stepping-stone to better paying jobs.

FACT: Mobility will not bring significant advancement to most low-wage workers. Even after a 25 year period, half of those in the lowest 20 percent of wage earners had not moved above that group and of those that moved half had only moved to the next highest wage group, still below the median wage. Low-wage jobs, historically have had few career ladders. Today, they offer even fewer.

MYTH: Reskilling will solve the problem.

FACT: Of course, better education and fluency in new technologies are essential to improve job options of this and the next generation of workers. Yet, these labor intensive industries will continue to demand large numbers of workers regardless of individual mobility, and these are the growing sectors of our economy. In the next ten years, the low end of the job market will account for more than 30% of the American workforce. Employers will hire nearly twice as many food-service workers as software engineers, hire as many cashiers as they do computer-support specialists an hire more than twice the number of customer-service representatives as they do computer systems analysts. The reskilling approach will do little to improve the lives of most workers in these low-wage jobs, jobs that will continue to grow as a proportion of our economy. What these workers need is to be adequately rewarded for the skills they already possess.

MYTH: Globalization stops us from doing anything about the problem.

FACT: As profound as the impact of global trade has been on our bad economy, it does not preclude improving the wages and working conditions for lower-wage workers. Only a small portion of low-wage jobs are actually in industries such as manufacturing that compete globally. Most lower-wage jobs are and will continue to be in the non-tradable service and retail sectors. Checking out groceries, waiting on tables, servicing office equipment, caring for children, tending the sick and cleaning up for the rest of us must take place in a specific location where the child, patient or customer is present.
Other industrialized countries competing in the same global markets as the United States have made political and business choices to ensure that all workers can rely on a safety net. As a result, workers in similar jobs in other industrialized countries have fared far better than American workers. Low-income Americans have living standards that are 13% below that of low-income Germans, 17% below low-income Belgians and 24% below the average income of the bottom 20% of Swedes. This is despite the fact that the median American enjoys a standard of living far above the median German, Belgian or Swede.

MYTH: Low-wage jobs are merely the result of an efficient market and we as a society have little control over this problem.

FACT: Low-wage workers face a world in which they have little power to change their conditions-a result of our creation, not natural law. Over the past quarter century, a variety of political, economic and corporate decisions undercut the bargaining power of the average worker, but especially those in the lower strata of the workforce. Those decisions included the push to increase global trade and open global markets, the increase of immigrant workers into the United States, government efforts to deregulate industries that had been highly unionized, Federal Reserve policies that concentrated on reducing the threats of inflation, and a corporate ideological shift that eliminated the postwar social contract with workers and emphasized a principle of maximizing shareholder value. These decisions contributed to the deterioration in low-wage conditions and a worsening of disparities in income and wealth.

During this same period, the most vulnerable workers were deprived of many of the institutions, laws and political allies that generally helped to counterbalance these forces. In 1950, the number of workers who were fired, harassed, or threatened for trying to organize a union was in the hundreds each year. By 1990, that number exceeded 20,000. Private sector unionization rates plummeted from 25% of the workforce in 1979 to 11% today. The value of the minimum wage fell 30% during the 1980s. Despite legislative increases in 1990 and 1991 and again in 1996 and 1997, the value of the minimum wage in 1999 was still 21% less than in 1979.

The Betrayal of Work Summary by Shulman, Beth.

The Betrayal of Work by Beth Shulman was published in 2003 (255 pages). Beth Shulman, a lawyer and former vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, spent 3 years traveling around the United States talking to Americans who are struggling by on low wages. She presents her findings in The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans. The book shows how the United States has neglected these workers, and how, despite the country's vast wealth, American workers have lower living standards than comparable workers in other industrialized countries. It concludes with a detailed call for policy reform to correct what stands as a national disgrace and a betrayal of America's founding notions of fairness and equity.

R.I.P. Beth Shulman (Born 1950, Died Feb. 5, 2010) - Lawyer. Author. Union Leader. Fighting For Low Wage Worker Rights Continues.
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