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Get to work, Americans! Globalization is coming home to roost, and you’re going to be getting very, very busy, with no rest in your dotage.
That’s the message from United Airlines and Old Europe this past week.
First Old Europe, where workers at a company at the Bosch car parts plant in France resignedly voted to accept a management demand that they increase their workweek (but not their pay) by an hour from the state mandated 35-hour week because of increased competition from abroad. That was followed by DaimlerChrysler in Germany, where workers agreed to return from a 35 to a 40-hour week, again with no increase in pay, under the threat of seeing plants outsourced to South Africa.
Other workers in France and Germany have been giving up two weeks of paid vacation and agreeing to increased workweeks after similar threats.
It appears that the 35-hour workweek, introduced only a few years ago as a pioneering reform in France, is on its deathbed, a victim of globalization. In the U.S., of course, the 40-hour week, once hailed generations ago as a great reform by the labor movement, died so long ago-sometime back in the Reagan years, I believe-that it is in severe rigor mortis at this point, with the average workweek hovering in the 42-hour range and rising.
Meanwhile, people in America aren’t just having to work longer to make ends meet–and increasingly just to keep their jobs; they can also forget about retiring at 65-and even about getting a pension.
Virtually all American employers long ago did away with so-called defined benefit pension plans-the ones that established a certain level of monthly benefits and then paid those benefits based on the number of years a worker was employed-and replaced them with so-called defined payment plans, where workers (and sometimes employers) paid into a plan and then the pension, upon retirement, would be based on how much was paid in, and on how well the company managed to invest those paid-in moneys.
Now many companies are trying to weasel out of those meager pension plans too. One way has always been to drop workers before their plans are "vested", usually after five years of employment. If that happens, the worker keeps what she or he has invested in a plan, but the company can keep what it contributed. Many workers, particularly at the lower end of the pay scale, but increasingly in higher paying white-collar jobs too, shuttle through a series of short-term jobs and never manage to get vested, in the process getting robbed of a lifetime’s worth of employee contributions to their never earned pensions. Corporate lobbyists have managed to prevent Congress from ever passing legislation making pensions fully portable from job to job-an obvious bit of basic decency that seems to elude even Democratic politicians. Another way of avoiding pensions, growing in popularity in management suites, is to hire contract workers and temps to do jobs once done by employees, since the outsourced jobs don’t get any benefits.
But it gets worse. United Airlines just announced that it wants to terminate its pension payments, and going forward, possibly cancel its pension program altogether. The company claims it needs to take this drastic step to remain competitive. Of course, to "remain competitive" with United, other airlines will argue that they have to do the same thing. (Did anyone say collusion?)
As this screw-the-worker movement spreads, as inevitably it will, like a wildfire, what we can expect to wind up with is American workers putting in 9-hour days, maybe adding a sixth day to the work week, and an end to retirement, since people will have to stay on the job until they die to keep paying for rent, food and medical care.
Welcome to the 19th Century.
Can child labor be far behind? Actually, they’ve actually been tinkering with the law here in Pennsylvania, where you’ll find children under 16 working in supermarkets and fast food joints under new "liberalized" labor laws (no doubt this is going on in other enlightened states too). Adding factory jobs and coal mining is just a matter of degree.
And yet they keep saying globalization is good, because "free trade" brings us cheaper goods and services.
Now, finally, we are seeing the seamy downside of all this. Corporations do just fine with globalization. They get to produce where it’s cheapest, sell the same goods back to us at huge mark-ups, and extort us into surrendering hard-won gains in pay, working hours, and retirement benefits, just to stay employed.
For the people though, globalization is just a form of governmentally sanctioned extortion, and until the working people of America massively return to trade unions, and insist that politicians respond to human, instead of corporate needs, it will only get worse.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" to be published this fall by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: email@example.com