Thursday, October 15, 2015

What Happened at the Worker Voice Summit?

Maybe not much…..

On October 7th, the White House hosted a Summit on Worker Voice, a one-day event focused on promoting organized labor. The event featured panel discussions involving workers, union officials and organizers, and so-called "model" employers. Organizations representing business were not invited.

So, what happened? What were the takeaways for the day? Good question, while there was some media attention in the run up to the October 7th event, there has been very little commentary or reporting since then – at least not much by the mainstream media or even in the HR blogosphere. I was curious, did some looking around and didn’t come up with anything substantive. I did however, read President Obama’s opening statement. I found it interesting to say the least.

This will be a long post; just a head’s up. Settle in, kick back – or not – whatever suits your fancy today. 

Let’s stroll through some of the President’s comments, shall we?

"And we convened this summit because we believe that this is a country where if we work hard, everybody should be able to get ahead; that the story of America has been each successive generation, getting an education where they could, working hard, saving, scrimping, making sure their kids get a little something better, hoping that at the end of the day they’re able to have a home of their own and be able to retire with some dignity and some respect, have basic benefits so that if they get sick, their families aren’t bankrupt."

On this, we agree. Hard work, initiative, and common sense family financial management are all keys to personal success. These are all components of personal responsibility for our own welfare and success. 

"And so the biggest challenge America continues to have is making sure that everybody in this new economy is participating, everybody who works hard is getting paid a decent wage with decent benefits, everybody has some basic economic security, and that the incredible productivity and wealth and innovation that has been a hallmark of the American economy is broadly based."

Again, we agree! We differ on whose responsibility it is to provide that economic security and how one goes about getting paid a "decent" wage, and so on.

"Wages need to rise more quickly.  We need jobs to offer the kind of pay and benefits that let people raise a family.  And in order to do that, workers need a voice.  They need the voice and the leverage that guarantees this kind of middle-class security. "

Ahhh, would that we lived in a Utopian world where every job provided what every person believed to be an appropriate wage and benefits to raise a family and put us all squarely in the middle class (whatever that really means). But, we don’t. This is not a socialist country (is it?). And realistically, even socialist countries don’t really provide that, do they?

This brings up the subject of the various movements currently going on to demand minimum wages be raised; most notably, the "Fight for 15". This is a union-backed campaign demanding that (primarily) fast-food businesses pay at least $15.00 per hour.

Terrence Wise introduced the President at the summit. Mr. Wise is a second-generation (??) fast-food worker at both Burger King and McDonald's (his mother also works or worked at Burger King). He is also an organizer for the Fight for 15 group. He related that he is paid $8.00 an hour, and is trying to raise three daughters. I can only imagine how difficult that is.

But here are a few points about this issue that I don’t see made too often. Minimum wage jobs are not, and never were, intended to support a family (or even to provide a living to an individual). A job pays what the job is worth – it is not a commentary on the person holding the job. Flipping burgers is not a complicated job, folks. It takes very little training or skill, therefore the labor pool available for such jobs is normally fairly large. A physicist with ten degrees will still only be paid $8.00 an hour flipping burgers at Burger King. Why should businesses be forced to pay far more for a job than its actual value? Maybe the better answer would be for government and business to work together to provide and encourage opportunities for people like Mr. Wise to better their situation by increasing skills/education and therefore allowing them to secure higher paying jobs.

After Mr. Wise’s introduction, the President commented on Mr. Wise and his mother Joann both being at the event:

"This is actually a remarkable moment:  Neither of them make enough money to be able to afford to travel much, so this is the first time Terrence and Joann have seen each other in 10 years. Ten years apart because they don't earn enough to be able to just hop on a plane and visit each other."

Seriously, Mr. President? Are you saying that employers have an obligation to ensure their employees can buy a ticket and hop on a plane to visit someone? When (or why) is that the responsibility of any business? This might be a good time to remind everyone that very few people have access to Air Force One and are able to go anywhere at any time for any reason at tax-payers’ expense.

"And so part of what we’ve got to do is to tap into people who are frustrated about their job paying so little, people who are frustrated about industries that used to be in their town leaving, rightly frustrated about how hard it is to save for retirement, rightly frustrated about the fact that they can be replaced at any time with very little protections -- and make sure that they understand there’s a positive way to deal with these issues that will actually produce and deliver change, and make things better -- not just for them, but for all workers.  We got to help people feel connected and not isolated, and hopeful, not just fearful."

The better way to accomplish this is to rein in the numerous, complicated, duplicative laws and regulations that make it incredibly difficult to run a business in this country. You know, the businesses that actually create the jobs you want? Yeah, those. Create a business environment that encourages companies to stay in this country and expand. That environment shouldn’t include unions that today really only serve to create an overly antagonistic and complicated relationship between employees and the companies they work for.

By the way, the comment about "very few protections" is ludicrous. As an HR pro, I’m quite well aware of the tens of thousands federal, state and local employment laws and regulations that provide numerous and varied protections to employees in every area the President complains about. In fact, the layering of such laws and regulations (local upon state, state upon federal, etc.) are part of the problem. There are many duplicative laws (those that cover the same topic at two or more levels of government (local, state and federal) that don’t provide any more protection, but only make doing business that much harder. I think it’s pretty clear that most of these laws/regulations that are passed every year are really political statements and designed to curry favor with voters who don’t fully understand the current state of such things. If you aren’t aware of these laws/regulations, email me or hit me in the comments section and I’ll be happy to clue you in.

The President began his wrap-up by relating what he described as "common-sense principles for what it means to work in America."

"First -- if you work hard in America, you should earn enough money to support your family. And if you’re working two jobs, like Terrence, then your family should never have to go to bed hungry.

Second -- if you work hard in America, you should earn decent benefits.  And that means access to the two bedrock sources of lifelong security, and that is affordable health coverage and retirement savings.  

Third -- if you work hard in America, you have the right to a safe workplace.  And if you get hurt on the job, or become disabled or unemployed, you should still be able to keep food on the table.

Fourth -- if you work hard in America, you should be able to take care of those you love, which means having sick leave and parental leave and affordable child care, and predictable schedules that give your family some stability.

Fifth -- if you work hard in America, you should have a pathway to the education and training you need to grow your skills and earn raises and promotions and the chance to get ahead.

And finally, if you work hard in America, you should have the freedom to decide for yourself -- without fear or interference -- if you want to join with others to advocate for yourself in the workplace, whether that’s through a union or any other means.  And these are core principles that helped build this country."

First: Yep, working hard and taking advantage of opportunities to better your lot in life should net you the ability to make a decent living and support your family. So – help provide the opportunities, don’t mandate that business be parental and provide everything to everyone.

Second: Yep, "decent" benefits are great. This country has developed (actually demanded) the model for business to provide health insurance, etc. to employees. Making it affordable is the challenge. Find a way to make health care more affordable. By the way, the ACA did nothing to control the costs of actual health care (only an attempt to spread the premium cost over more people, thereby possibly reducing the cost to individual premium payers). Also, there is very little that’s affordable about the insurance available under the ACA. Trust me, I know! Employer provided coverage offers way more value and covers more than anything available on the individual market. Thanks. Also, while I believe that companies that can afford to offer decent benefits should do so, not every business can, and shouldn’t be forced to do so – especially when that results in fewer jobs or lower wages. The money has to come from somewhere.

Third: We have laws requiring safe workplaces (OSHA or state equivalents, for example); rather extensive laws. We have unemployment insurance. Is it great? Not really, but what do you expect to get for not working? Again, we’re not a socialist country. While we have programs to provide income to people who are disabled, I agree they need to be reformed. Employer-based disability insurance plans (Short-term disability and Long-term disability plans) are pretty fair and are often offered to employees at no charge). When it comes to the federal programs – Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income – Mr. President, they need work. When it takes years for truly disabled individuals to get benefits because of the bureaucratic bs, the system is broken. When fraud can flourish, the system is broken. When there’s a hard income line that cuts people off from all benefits when their income reaches a ridiculously low threshold, the system is broken. Why would you force people to stay completely unemployed or seriously underemployed? How is that responsible or effective? What about a sliding-scale plan where people with disabilities can still work and earn money but keep their health benefits? They continue to be productive, contribute and help themselves, but still receive the support they need. Apparently, this administration cares more about fast-food workers than it does about people with disabilities. Again, trust me on this, I know!

Fourth: See my 2nd point above. Predictable schedules? Yep, that would be nice. But maybe you should have an honest discussion with the retail, food service and health care industries (among many others). They provide products and services that consumers demand (retail/food service) and need (health care). The consumer wants these things at all hours, on all days at all times of the year. Businesses employ human beings. Human beings get sick, go on vacation, quit and get fired. The work still needs to be done. Not every employee wants to work the night shift all the time. Not every employee wants to even work the day shift all the time. Not every employee wants to work on the weekends or holidays all the time. Somebody has to do the job. It’s not always predictable.

Fifth: Yes! We all want these opportunities! So, work to help provide them. Work to help make education more affordable and available. Work to make job-skill training more available. Don’t mandate that raises, promotions and all the good things that hard work offers simply be given to everyone regardless of education, skill, experience and effort. Work to help promote business in this country and build up our economy – so the higher-paying jobs are available.

And yes, we should have the freedom to decide for ourselves if we want to join with others to advocate for ourselves in the workplace, whether that’s through a union or any other means. But we don’t all have that freedom, do we? There are states that allow unions to force employees to be members. Yeah, they can say they don’t want to pay the full dues for union membership, but are still required to pay "maintenance dues" even if they don’t want or agree with the way the union represents them. That’s not freedom, that’s coercion.  

"And these are core principles that helped build this country." Our country was built on the values of hard work and initiative. Not on the premise of providing everything to everyone at all times. You have to work together; you have to fulfill your part of the bargain. You can’t just sit back and wait for it to come to you.

President Obama’s last comment was actually pretty stunning:

"And I’ll end on this point.  You can’t wait for Congress.  No, no, I’m just saying.  We’ve got incredible champions like Nancy Pelosi and members of Congress who are here, but this is a fight on the ground.  We’ve got to change an attitude and mindset that says there’s nothing we can do, or giving workers more voice means inefficiency and we won’t be competitive, or suggests that there’s a contradiction between economic growth and decent wages, or suggests that we should have a race to the bottom with other countries, or suggests that somehow the current arrangements in which a growing amount of what we produce in this country going to the top .001 percent is in the natural order of things and is somehow fair and just."

Well, he’s pretty much taken the "can’t wait for Congress" thing to the bank, hasn’t he? Bypassing legislation through Executive fiat has been a frequent occurrence with this administration.

The Department of Labor and the White House should not be pimping unions. Period. While union representation might be right for some, it is not right for everyone. A recent Gallup poll shows that unionized employees are less satisfied than nonunion employees in the following categories: workplace physical safety conditions, recognition for a job well done, flexibility of hours and job security. A unionized workplace does not equate to workers being more satisfied or better off. Our laws and regulations should reflect that reality, and it should not be the role of government to either encourage or discourage unionization.

Unfortunately that is what the current administration is doing. It shouldn’t be the role of government to undermine business by allowing an out of control regulatory agency to undermine at every turn that business’s ability to manage its workplace and workforce. But, it does. Should we be supportive of an agency that says the following is "protected speech"?

Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***ER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!!! F**k his mother and his entire fu**king family!!!

What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!.

Yeah, the NLRB, in its Perez Pier Sixty ruling, said this employee’s obscene and vulgar rant on Facebook was protected and therefore he couldn’t be fired for directing these comments at his supervisor. Why? Because he ended his comments with "Vote Yes for the Union!" Lovely. This is what we should support? I think not. This is just one of many examples of recent rulings by the NLRB that indicate its (and this Administration’s) biased support of unions in direct opposition to the entities that actually create the jobs they seek to control.

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