You Need a Union

Pete Seeger

Click on the picture to hear Pete Seeger.

In perhaps the best era for the American worker, unions may have reached their peak power during the Harry Truman era. That’s about the same time the drumbeat against them began. I’m not sure how much of this was true, or how much of it was partially true but encouraged and enhanced by corporate PR that has always wanted to eliminate or disregard assertions of worker power. But let’s look at why you probably haven’t wanted to be associated with a union.

  1. They’re corrupt. There have certainly been headline incidents of union heads enriching themselves and pilfering funds. Right up there with corporate heads and government officials enriching themselves and pilfering funds. A more educated and involved membership could help to watch over such fancy accounting.
  2. They’re only for working class grunts. Yeah, that’s what they’d like you to believe. Because if you’re white collar, maybe telling you you’re elite will allow employers to compel you to work without a lunch hour, work at night, work on the weekends…work at their beck and call, because, well, you’re on a salary.
  3. They’re adversarial and only care about the welfare of their members, not the rest of society. This has been going on at least since World War II. Employees being treated fairly don’t have to be adversaries, and member ship groups (including lobbying groups, non-government organizations, and non-profit advocacy organizations…and members of Congress) exist to be strong advocates for their constituents.
  4. They’re racists. Groups that feel threatened will always try to exclude others who might be threatening, especially when there’s a small pie to be doled out. On the other hand, when unions have substantial minority membership, then they’re “only” for that minority. I don’t agree with either stance, and think that it’s in the self-interest of unions to have a large, diverse, and active membership.
  5. They’re selfish in their negotiations. This complaint mainly seems to be based on envy—unions have been able to negotiate better working hours, better vacations, better health insurance and far better pensions than most workers get—in fact, that’s a reason for them to exist. But the real question should be, why doesn’t every worker get these benefits? I used to think, for example, that teachers got outrageous pensions. Now I question why everyone doesn’t get a livable retirement pension.

If you still hate unions, I invite you to watch two movies and get back to me. The first is Germinal, starring Gerard Depardieu. The second is the newer movie, American Factory.  The reason people eventually turn to unions is because they are so exploited and endangered, with little or no recourse, that their only choice is to risk everything.

Nearly everyone I speak with in the healthcare field could use a union. More and more healthcare is driven by gig work (with no benefits), outrageous productivity requirements (aka a virtual assembly line where the belt is continually speeded up), expectations that you will work through lunch and take more home, and fire-at-will if the professional tries to complain about the impossibility of delivering quality patient care. I’m not as familiar with other industries, but I do hear stories. Gig work is a huge step in screwing the worker. The employer has managed to shed the last vestige of responsibility for the worker—hire and pay only when they can make money off the worker, no overhead in providing facilities or equipment, the worker responsible for providing transportation, no benefits (unemployment, days off, health insurance, disability) and, the first to go, no retirement. Getting rid of pensions (the backbone of the WWII generation’s retirement), was only the first step. But hey, you’re free to work flexible hours, and provide your own home for a work site. And gee, we’ll pay you a little bit more than the going wage, so you’ll get snookered into thinking it’s a better deal. (See my post, here, on calculating that.)

Unions need to find a way to organize workers from different employers, different from the model they’ve used historically. They can call themselves professional associations for all I care, but if they walk like a union, quack like a union, and negotiate like a union, they’re a union. As the strong unions in the Scandinavian countries have demonstrated, unions can be partners in advancing the interests of all concerned, including employers, who can benefit by more satisfied, productive workers.

Oh, and one more suggestion. Go watch Metropolis. You might not think it’s science fiction any more.

Financial choices in a weird job market

I keep hearing how the job market is at full employment, yet I’ve written before how insecure most younger workers seem to feel in their jobs. But yet again a few days ago someone commented to me, “Oh yeah, in (XXX industry) they’re just begging for people”. Well, “they” may be begging but I can tell them why they can’t fill the positions:

  1. The location is horrible: oil rig, frozen tundra, windowless cubicle, crazy hours, or crime infested neighborhood with a perilous journey to get there. So, basically, they’re not paying enough to make the risk worthwhile (as with any other investment).
  2. There’s a completely unrealistic set of requirements. Either the employer is requesting more education and/or experience than the job could conceivably require, or their requirements are so specific and demanding that two people in the world have those qualifications, and they’re not paying enough to attract them, or to encourage anyone else to invest in such specific training.
  3. Employers are thinking of the old days, when you could work your way through college. Millennials have heavy debt burdens—they’ve financed their careers long term. Requiring a masters’ degree in an urban area and offering $50,000 a year is so unrealistic as to be almost breathtaking. Couple that with the gig economy of “staffing companies” who offer no retirement benefits, no health insurance, and minimal vacation and sick days (and no paid holidays or overtime for working those or weekends—it’s all coming out of your “personal days) and, well, they’re not paying enough. Interestingly, staffing companies and recruiters often think they’re offering a higher hourly rate and I’m sorry to say that some people are dumb enough to fall for that. But if you calculate the value of benefits, cost of health insurance, value of paid time off, etc. you are almost certainly being screwed—because when did an employer ever have your best interests at heart?

 

Under capitalism, the market should be responding to these shortages by raising wages, right? Right. Instead, they’re offloading all responsibility for workers and directing ever more in the CEO’s pocket. We need someone creating an equally strong pressure (such as unions, government regulation, and new legislation controlling egregious corporate behavior). Will this plunge the value of companies and non-profits to operate? No, I don’t think so—just cost the 1% their ability to take everything. And great, offload responsibilities for workers–but then let’s put corporate taxes in place that fund government provision of those services.

 

It’s particularly troubling in areas that are critical to health, well-being, and education. These fields are supposedly “desperate” for trained people, yet many trained people can’t readily find jobs. I know of one situation where someone was being interviewed for a position at a fragile-medical rehab center. Although the candidate had absolutely no experience in the field, they offered a job after a 20-minute interview, if said candidate would accept an outrageously low salary, no extra compensation for weekends or holidays, high cost employee paid health insurance, no training, no mentorship, yadda-yadda.   They were obviously desperate for a warm body to fill the slot. But if you landed in the place after being in ICU, would you want to be treated by that new hire? And why was that job going begging? Because they’re not paying enough.

 

I’ve been amused lately by the practice of employers not disclosing the salary range for a position, and I’ve actually seen millennials comment that it would be “impolite” to ask that when being interviewed (either by phone or being asked to take time to interview in person).  Seriously? Why would you not ask—because you might offend an employer by being interested in working for money? As Samuel Johnson said, Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

 

And why would an employer be offended by an applicant asking about the salary range, especially so as not to waste anyone’s time? Because they know they’re not paying enough. And for them, your time is free.

So go ahead, tell me why I’m wrong (politely, please). I’m open to changing my perspective.

Calculating the worth of a job offer

We’ve all heard that we’re moving to a gig economy. I think this used to be known as being a freelancer, but there are some important new wrinkles. If you’re thinking of accepting or have been offered this type of job, you need to get out your calculator and run some numbers to see what you should actually charge, and what’s a fair offer. BTW, this has come to my attention based on an offer made to my job hunting child—hourly or salary, with the hourly rate being slightly more. The employer making the offer was genuinely surprised when dear daughter turned it down; she said most people prefer the hourly because the rate was higher. No it wasn’t—at least not enough.

Let’s set up a case study for Sally Onherown. Ms. Onherown would expect to make $70,000 in a salaried position. That position would also include health insurance, short term disability insurance, an opportunity to buy into a group policy for long term disability insurance, paid vacation time of 10 days, 7 paid federal holidays, 3 paid sick days, and a 401k to which the employer contributes 3% of salary (provided the employee also contributes 3%). In 2018 there are 261 working days, so Ms. Onherown is making $268.20/day or $33.53 per hour (I’m using 8 hours, though a 9-5 job with a lunch hour is only 7 hours).

Let’s see what Ms. Onherown’s benefits are worth:

Paid vacation

$2,682.00

Paid federal holidays

1,877.40

Paid sick days

804.60

Employer’s 401k contribution

2,100.00

Value of health insurance (based on $424.26/month through ACA for a 20 something)

5,091.12

Short term disability (usually 1-3% of income)

700.00

Long term disability (let’s say you’d pay half of 3%)

1,050.00

Total value of benefits                                                     

$14,305.12

So, in order for a freelance gig to pay as much as a salary, Ms. Onherown would need to be paid at least 20.4% more: $84,305.12, or $40.38 per hour.

But wait, that’s not all. If Ms. Onherown is working out of her own home or apartment, she could deduct some portion of the housing as a home office, and any time she uses her car to travel to a site, the mileage would be deductible. But if all that hourly work is performed at the employer’s site, she loses that. If she has to use her car, she may get a gas allowance, but often these don’t take into account the wear and tear on the car, the cost of purchasing (and financing) a vehicle, the increased cost for car insurance when used for a job, and the inevitably increased maintenance on a heavily used car. And, does Ms. Onherown need to provide any of her own supplies? Depending on the profession, this can really rack up some costs.

While Ms. Onherown could certainly contribute to an IRA, without a match, the amount she could contribute (and the potential reduction of her taxable income) is far lower than the amount she might contribute to an employer 401k. While a single making $70K probably doesn’t have enough to contribute the full $18,500, these jobs are often pitched to married people (as “flexible”)—and if spousal income is sufficient, the couple is losing an important tax saving opportunity.

We’re probably wading into the weeds here, but are those hours guaranteed? Because if the client isn’t available, or there’s not sufficient business, or some time might be taken up with non-billable activities like staff meetings, the hourly person working directly for an organization might end up with far less than 40 billable hours. In fact, many true freelancers are lucky to be able to bill 20 hours per week. If it’s the kind of freelance job where you also need to join professional organizations, pay for professional insurance, do marketing, and supply your own technology (and technology repair and replacement), the costs are much, much higher than my list above.

Many years ago, when I worked at writing grant applications, the Feds used to allow us to include a “reasonable” indirect rate of 31-33% on any proposal to cover just these sorts of costs for personnel. I think that’s a good starting point—add about 1/3 to any salary, and you’ll have a pretty good estimate of what a minimum freelance hourly rate should be.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post used 216 working days instead of 261–an inadvertent transposition. The calculations have been corrected. I regret the error.