The Past and Future of The American Worker

A strike at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles has ended with a settlement. Meanwhile, in New York, an effort to unionize fast food workers is just getting under way. One represents American labor's past. The other represents its future.

The port strike in California was reminiscent the days when labor was strong. Longshoremen stopped working, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cargo to a standstill for days. Elected officials got involved in a desperate effort to end the strike. And the workers more or less won. At the dispute's core was a group of skilled "clerks," logistics operators who feared that the company would send their computer-based jobs overseas. "The clerks, who make an average base salary of $87,000 a year, have some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the nation. When vacation, pension and other benefits are factored in, the employers said, their annual compensation package reached $165,000 a year." The new contract says that the company cannot eliminate more than 14 positions before 2016.

Good for the union members for winning. But the reality is that high-paying blue collar jobs that are able to be outsourced are not going to play a big role in the future of the average American worker. With a few exceptions, it's not possible for organized labor to hold those sweet jobs hostage from the forces of free trade and the international economy. A glance at America's decimated industrial sector will tell you that.

Income inequality in America is huge, and growing. The middle class, which was for generations full of those relatively well-paid blue collar workers, is shrinking. In the foreseeable future, the "average American worker" will not be a longshoreman, or an auto worker. He will be the guy taking orders at McDonald's.

Eduardo Porter today points out the grim truth of employment: service jobs, those most immune to globalization, will be the only option for huge numbers of Americans going forward.

The American labor market has been hollowing out for decades - losing many of the middle-skilled, relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing that can be performed more cheaply by machines or workers overseas. It has split between a high end of well-educated workers, and a low end of less-educated workers performing jobs, mostly in the service sector, that cannot be outsourced or mechanized.

This process is not expected to reverse any time soon. According to government statistics, personal care aides will make up the fastest-growing occupation this decade. The Economic Policy Institute study found that some 57 percent of them live in poverty.


Domestic workers
. Fast food workers. Retail workers. These are the workers most in need of the help of unions, and the workers least likely to have it. These are the workers with few other options. And, like it or not, their ranks will only be growing as our "Low Wage Recovery" grinds on.

So we congratulate those few, proud, strong old unions that can still command premiums for their members. But for the average American, employee protests at Wal-Mart and McDonald's are far more significant than shutting down a huge port. McJobs may be the future. Let's at least try to make that future livable.

[Photo: AP]