U.S. Lags Far Behind in Worker Protection

by DAVID MACARAY

If you were wondering where the United States ranks, relative to the rest of the world, in the general category of “worker protection,” there is now a precise answer available—one supplied by Professor Kenneth Thomas of the University of Missouri (St. Louis), who based his findings on statistics supplied by OECD members.

The OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) is a group of 34 comparatively “rich” industrialized nations that was founded in 1961 and whose stated purpose, more or less, is to meet semi-regularly to discuss ways of increasing economic progress through world trade.  It might help to think of the OECD as an international version of the Chamber of Commerce.  Its headquarters are in Paris, France.

The following countries are members of the OECD:  Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

So what did Professor Thomas learn from his survey?  Where does the proud and accomplished United States rank?  Shockingly, the U.S. not only finishes dead last overall, but in many of the specific categories (maternity leaves, medical leaves, education, etc.) we’re not even within shouting distance of the rest of the pack.

Now a sharp-eyed realist might attempt to mitigate these findings by arguing that getting beaten in these categories by Denmark, Sweden and Norway is no disgrace and certainly no surprise.  After all, Scandinavia is/was known as a veritable “workers paradise.”  But Estonia and Mexico?  Chile and Slovenia?  Surely, someone is joking.

But it’s no joke.  Thomas shows that the U.S. not only lags well behind its fellow OECD members in worker protection, it even trails the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries in many areas.  Among the categories considered in the OECD study:  being fired unfairly, not receiving severance pay, not getting enough notice on mass layoffs, and the use of non-vested, non-permanent employees.

Arguably, the U.S. is undergoing a shift in self-identity.  Instead of seeing ourselves, collectively, as a “country”—a society, a culture, a national community—we now see ourselves as nothing more than an economic arena—a gladiatorial arena where it’s every man for himself, where there are only winners and losers.  And while no one knows how all of this will ultimately play out, it’s safe to say it will end badly for the majority (formerly known as “citizens”; now referred to as “losers”).

There are two (and only two) sources of worker protection:  federal and state labor laws, and union contracts.  In the absence of these two safeguards, it’s economic free-fall.  As for our laws, they’re being tested and challenged every day by predatory corporations looking for shortcuts and loopholes.  Making it worse, the courts and media reflexively defend these corporations.  Meanwhile, the Democrats—labor’s putative “friends”—are terrified of doing anything that will make them look pro-labor.

Which leaves only the unions to provide a modicum of worker protection and dignity.  And, as everyone knows, union membership now hovers at a mere 12.4%, down from a high of nearly 35% back in the glory days of the 1950s, when the middle-class was thriving and prosperous.  Who would’ve thought it possible?  Who would’ve dreamed the day would come when the American worker looked to Estonia for inspiration?

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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