A 2015 Labor Day Reading List

A roundup of recent stories on the changing nature of work in America

Although Labor Day itself may have mellowed a bit, Americans are still demonstrating for better working conditions, as the widely-covered "Fight for $15" minimum wage campaign suggests. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

It’s an often-noted point these days that Labor Day began in the United States with strikes and marches, but has mellowed in its post-centennial age into a holiday of retail sales and backyard grilling. (That observation may be widespread, but it’s not novel: here’s a version 50 years ago from the Chicago Tribune.)

But in case you’d like to ring in your Labor Day by reading up on how labor itself is changing in America, I’ve compiled a collection of recent coverage from The Atlantic that covers just that theme. One refrain in this coverage is the idea that Americans take less vacation time and work more hours than their counterparts in other rich countries. So if you are grilling today, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ve probably earned it. Enjoy your Labor Day.

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A World Without Work

Since the era of the Luddites, people have been warning that technology will begin eliminating jobs. So far, these warnings have been wrong. But in The Atlantic’s July/August cover story, Derek Thompson examines whether it’s time to heed that warning:

The job market defied doomsayers in those earlier times, and according to the most frequently reported jobs numbers, it has so far done the same in our own time. Unemployment is currently just over 5 percent, and 2014 was this century’s best year for job growth. One could be forgiven for saying that recent predictions about technological job displacement are merely forming the latest chapter in a long story called The Boys Who Cried Robot—one in which the robot, unlike the wolf, never arrives in the end.

The end-of-work argument has often been dismissed as the “Luddite fallacy,” an allusion to the 19th-century British brutes who smashed textile-making machines at the dawn of the industrial revolution, fearing the machines would put hand-weavers out of work. But some of the most sober economists are beginning to worry that the Luddites weren’t wrong, just premature. When former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was an MIT undergraduate in the early 1970s, many economists disdained “the stupid people [who] thought that automation was going to make all the jobs go away,” he said at the National Bureau of Economic Research Summer Institute in July 2013. “Until a few years ago, I didn’t think this was a very complicated subject: the Luddites were wrong, and the believers in technology and technological progress were right. I’m not so completely certain now.”

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What If There Aren’t Jobs?

In a review of Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Schaefer’s new book, $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Jared Bernstein questions one of the basic assumptions of America’s approach to alleviating poverty:

I cannot overemphasize the importance of this fundamental flaw in poverty policy, i.e., the assumption that there is an ample supply of perfectly good jobs out there that poor people could tap if they just wanted to do so. To this day, this misguided notion underlies the conservative policy agenda that views anti-poverty policy as a narcotic that weans people away from the jobs awaiting them. Kill the programs, and they’ll get out of their hammocks (Rep. Paul Ryan’s term for the safety net) and get to work.

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What If There Aren’t Bosses?

In July, Alana Semuels took Atlantic readers to Austin, Texas, to look into how companies work when no one—or, rather, everyone—is in charge:

Worker cooperatives are not new, but they’re seeing new life as progressive-minded employees seek out remedies for the nation’s growing economic inequality. Worker cooperatives are equally owned and governed by employees, who also earn money from the profits of their labor. There are no CEOs here making multi-million dollar salaries while workers receive minimum wage. Nor are there CEOs with decades of experience and education to successfully guide the company through the up and downs of the dog-eat-dog business world.

In worker cooperatives, decision-making is democratic, so each worker has one vote, and policies can’t be determined by an investor whose only priority is profit. (Most profit-minded investors probably wouldn’t touch a worker cooperative with a ten-foot pole anyway.)

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What Work Is For

Should a job be just a job—a transaction in which workers exchange labor for compensation—or should work mean something more? Joe Pinsker interviews Barry Schwartz, the author of the new book Why We Work, about his answer to that question:

Schwartz: When it comes to working “just for pay,” there’s us and there’s them. There’s the white-collar workers, the professionals, the knowledge class, and they want engagement, meaning, the opportunity to learn and grow, and autonomy. They don’t work just for pay. And then there’s everybody else, and everybody else is just about the paycheck.

But there are plenty of examples of blue-collar workers who, if they had any little opportunity to get meaning and significance out of their work, they’d take that opportunity—even if they’re not paid for going the extra mile. In fact, they might be punished if a supervisor sees them, but they still do it. I think the seeds are present in people, and the trick is to create institutions that nurture these seeds instead of basically stamping them out.

In an interview with Saki Knafo, the MIT business professor Zeynep Ton connects this argument about the importance of meaningful work to an argument for higher retail wages, a case Ton makes in her book The Good Jobs Strategy:

Ton: A good job is more than just higher wages. A good job is also a productive job.

Economists talk about efficiency wages. They say if you increase wages you can get a better group of workers and you can have them work harder because they are going to want to do their jobs. And it’s true, they might work harder. But if their jobs are designed in a way that doesn’t allow them to contribute that much, even hard work isn’t going to help that much. A typical person at a retail store might be in charge of shelving merchandise and that’s all they do. But if you ask that person to also engage with customers, if you ask that person to also have a say in which merchandise you should carry, if you ask that person to go open a cash register when there’s a long line, now that person can contribute so much more. And if you design the job that way, so that people can contribute a lot more, you’ll need highly motivated, capable employees, and you can pay them a lot more.

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What Work Is For, Part 2

Companies are increasingly focusing on the happiness and fulfillment of their employees, William Davies writes in an essay adapted from his book The Happiness Industry. But there may be a dark side to this focus, Davies says:

As the science of happiness has moved closer to the front line of profit-maximizing business, something curious has happened to it. For Bentham, happiness was something which resulted from certain activities and choices. But in the context of business consultancy and individual coaching, happiness looks altogether different. Suddenly, it is represented as an input to certain strategies and projects, a resource to be drawn upon, which will yield more money in return. The premise that money yields a proportionate quantity of happiness is spun on its head, suggesting instead that a quantity of happiness will yield a certain amount of money.

One of a new generation of positive psychology management gurus, Shawn Achor, outlines a range of data in his book, The Happiness Advantage, suggesting that happier people achieve more in their careers. They get promoted more, sell more (if they work in marketing) and enjoy better health. Happiness becomes a form of capital on which they can fall back amidst the turbulence of an uncertain economy. It is, as the title of his book suggests, a source of advantage in the battle to succeed. If this was the limit of his wisdom, Achor might sound like a fatalist: Optimists are just luckier in all regards than pessimists.

The crucial supplement to the data is that we are all, supposedly, capable of influencing our own happiness levels. Happiness, Achor tells us, is a choice. We can either choose to be happy (and consequently successful) or choose to be unhappy (and suffer the consequences). Neuroscientist Paul Zak, another leading speaker and consultant on these issues, suggests that we view our happiness like a “muscle,” which needs exercising regularly in order to keep it in full working order, for when we need it. Lurking within this highly individualized agenda is the capacity to blame people for their own misery and failure, both of which are matters that they have evidently failed to act upon adequately.

What does “happiness” even mean, once it is being conceived of in this way? It seems to imply a source of energy and resilience, but always directed towards goals other than being happy, such as status, power, employment, and money. In the face of workplace ennui and psychological stagnation, the motivational gurus simply demand more willpower. By this account, the activities that might result in happiness, such as socializing or relaxing, are only valuable to the extent that they might restore brain and body to a level of fitness, from which they can then be propelled forwards to the next business challenge. This particular version of utilitarianism means expanding corporate rationality further into everyday life, such that there is now even an “optimal” way of taking a break from work, and simply going for a walk can be viewed as a calculated act of productivity management. What is going on? The misery of working people is a serious political issue. How did it become captured in this way?

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The Future of Unions

Steven Greenhouse, the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, has written several dispatches for The Atlantic on how the interaction between unions, companies, and workers is evolving. He looked at the tactics Walmart uses to fight unionization:

Walmart maintains a steady drumbeat of anti-union information at its more than 4,000 U.S. stores, requiring new hires—there are hundreds of thousands each year—to watch a video that derides organized labor. Indeed, Walmart’s anti-union campaign goes back decades: There was “Labor Relations and You at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center,” a 1991 guide aimed at beating back the Teamsters at its warehouses, and then in 1997 came “A Manager’s Toolbox to Remaining Union Free.” The first half of a statement in that toolbox has been repeatedly snickered at for being so egregiously false: “We are not anti-union; we are pro-associate.”

Early last year, Anonymous, a network of hacker activists, leaked two internal Walmart PowerPoint slideshows. One was a “Labor Relations Training” presentation for store managers that echoed the “Manager’s Toolbox” in suggesting that unions were money-grubbing outfits caring little about workers’ welfare. “Unions are a business, not a club or social organization—they want associates’ money,” the PowerPoint read. (Walmart confirmed the PowerPoints’ authenticity.) “Unions spend members’ dues money on things other than representing them,” it added.

In another piece for The Atlantic, Greenhouse explored the complex relationship between the Service Employees International Union, the “Fight for $15” campaign to raise the minimum wage, and McDonald’s:

Some fast-food workers in Seattle, Los Angeles, or New York might conclude that they don’t need a union once they start getting $15 an hour, but failing to unionize might prevent them from winning further wage increases and improvements in years to come—perhaps in the form of legislation for paid sick days or maternity leave. And if the nation’s labor unions continue to weaken and slide into irrelevance, it is doubtful that newfangled advocacy groups that fight on unaffiliated workers’ behalf, even highly effective ones such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or Domestic Workers United, would begin to have the finances, lobbying clout, or organizing muscle to get cities and states to embrace a $13 or $15 minimum wage. In years to come, new progressive, pro-worker groups or movements might form—perhaps some group resembling Acorn—that would champion a higher minimum wage, but again it is questionable how effective such a group would be without a strong, viable labor movement to provide it political and financial support.

If the SEIU can come up with a way to unionize a franchising giant like McDonald’s, it would be a watershed for organized labor—and could create a replicable strategy for lifting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of low-wage workers.

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The Future of Weekends

Speaking of unions, one of the biggest victories for the labor movement in the United States was the establishment of weekends. There are signs that those, too, are changing. Some companies have formalized a four-day work week for their employees, as the online education startup Treehouse has done:

Joe Pinsker recently reported more on Treehouse's four-day week and similar approaches in place elsewhere:

For the foreseeable future, the 32-hour fantasy will remain a quirk and a perk—a way for small, forward-thinking companies in knowledge industries to compete with their more powerful rivals for talented employees. Some companies have taken on these reduced schedules and seen positive results. Basecamp, a software company that has its employees take Fridays off in the summer, and elMejorTrato.com, a search engine that maintains that schedule year-round, have both seen revenue growth even as they have kept reduced hours. (A handful of companies also offer what are called “compressed workweeks,” in which 40 hours of scheduled work are shoehorned into four days.)

Meanwhile, this summer, Wisconsin made it easier for its residents to work seven-day weeks. Gillian White laid out the context for the change:

Under the tenure of Governor Scott Walker, organized labor’s power has been severely depleted within the state, a radical change from the days when the state had a strong union presence. Though Walker might not have a direct hand in the current seven-day workweek proposal, his changes have certainly helped set the stage for decreased opposition to such a bill. “[Republicans] think they have the unions on the run and they want to try to do as much as they can to weaken them,” Kettl says. He adds that the alliances between Democrats and unions, and Republicans and businesses is clear and strong in Wisconsin—stronger than it is in many other states. “Every effort that is made to weaken unions is simultaneously an effort that's being made to wound the Democrats.” The push for a seven-day workweek from the Republican party is indicative of the ongoing struggle between the two parties and their allies.

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The Rise of the Freelance Economy

The “sharing economy,” the “fissured workplace,” the world of “on-demand work”—there are a lot of buzz phrases to describe the increase in contract and short-term labor enabled in part by the Internet and mobile technologies. As Nancy Cook reported for The Atlantic, this phenomenon has led to the expansion of institutions like the 20-year-old Freelancers Union:

Bringing freelancers together is an urgent task in today's economy, says union leader [Sara] Horowitz, citing a “massive acceleration” of their numbers in the past few years. “There is kind of a consciousness,” she adds, “that people will freelance at some point in their lives.”

It is hard to find an accurate estimate of the number of freelance workers who participate in the so-called sharing economy, which is dominated by technology companies that rely on freelancers for much of their labors—Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Instacart, and the like. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated this spring that the freelance workforce ranges anywhere from less than 5 percent to more than a third of the nation's workforce, depending upon how freelance workers are defined. GAO found that freelancers were more likely to be young, Hispanic, and relatively poor.

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The Shape of Today’s Workforce

On the occasion of a recent jobs report release, David Graham examined how the workforce has changed since 1977, the last time labor force participation was as low as it is today:

A couple things jump out here: Even though the labor-participation rate is almost as low now as it was then, the workforce has grown faster than the population (which was 220 million then and is around 319 million now). The big jump is in the number of women employed—from 36.5 million in October 1977 to 54.1 now. Male employment has also climbed, but not as much. So as the female labor-force participation rate has climbed, the male rate has dropped, from eight in 10 to barely seven in 10 men working full time. And whereas the male unemployment rate was much lower in 1977, now there’s gender parity.

Even as the gender balance has shifted, it’s noticeable that the racial balance hasn’t. Now, as in 1977, the black unemployment rate is much higher than the national rate, and lags far behind white unemployment.

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What Labor Day Means

To round out the reading list, here’s Chad Broughton’s meditation from Labor Day 2014 on the meaning of the holiday:

Labor Day ... was meant to honor not just the individual worker, but what workers accomplish together through activism and organizing. Indeed, Labor Day in the 1880s, its first decade, was in many cities more like a general strike—often with the waving red flag of socialism and radical speakers critiquing capitalism—than a leisurely day off. So to really talk about this holiday, we have to talk about those-which-must-not-be-named: unions and the labor movement.

The labor movement fought for fair wages and to improve working conditions, as is well known, but it was its political efforts that did nothing less than transform American society. Organized labor was critical in the fight against child labor andfor the eight-hour workday and the New Deal, which gave us Social Security and unemployment insurance. Union workers sacrificed in America’s historic production effort in World War II and pushed for Great Society legislation in the 1960s. Michael Patrick, a former local Machinists president from Galesburg, Illinois, where I’ve done research, cites his union’s support for Medicare and the Civil Rights Act, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, as among his local’s proudest moments.

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Bonus: Poem of the Day

From the August 2005 issue of The Atlantic, here’s Rodney Jones’ “Sovereign Joy” (you can hear the author read the poem at that link):

On the John Deere he felt inaugurated,
freshly minted, risen to eminence.
He could hit the left foot brake, square-
pirouette at the floodgate, and follow
the creekbank back to the barn. He knew
where liveth and when goeth and how
lift harrow and turn governor down.
He had studied paradise—this came close,
making a vow always to live right
and perfect corners he'd cheat by littles
until he went in an oval, round
and round, not seeing everything, but happy,
breaking ground, a farm boy with the Beatles
in his head, a young Baptist dancing.