Today in Big Labor


Thanks to an airline-miles deal, I started getting the WSJ again (though it remains to be seen how consistently it will actually reach my doorstep). Once upon a time, my daily encounter with the newspaper drove a lot more of what I wrote about on my Marginal Utility blog, so I am feeling a bit nostalgic, responding to a series of stories in today’s Marketplace section. It’s fitting that the WSJ‘s labor coverage ends up in the Marketplace section, as the paper’s overall attitude toward labor is that it is a commodity driven by irrational fluctuations in worker sentiment that must be prudently managed by wise corporate negotiators and CEOs. Today’s paper has two stories on labor disputes (who says unions are dead?): one about a walkout at Verizon, and one about slow downs and sickouts among pilots at US Airways and United Continental. In both cases, management has trotted out the explanation that competitive market conditions demand that workers accept less in the way of wages, benefits and pensions. Verizon is demanding concessions from its land-line workers because according too the company’s CEO, “It is clear that some of the existing contract provisions, negotiated initially when Verizon was under far less competitive pressure, are not in line with the economic realities of business today.”  Notice that labor activism and workers’ demands are not regarded as economic realities; labor is expected to passively react to the realities of intense market competition, not be a factor among them. The same goes for the pilots. “Airlines argue that they are beset with many problems, including high-fuel prices and intense domestic competition,” so pilots are expected to continue to work under the crisis compensation rates they agreed to when the airlines were in danger of going out of business, despite the fact that they have returned to profitability. Rather than a constant factor in the organization of capitalist economies, the intensity of competitiveness is represented as a kind of unruly natural force that ebbs and flows mysteriously. Labor and management have no choice but join together to try to mitigate its capriciousness. The argument from competitiveness simply assumes workers don’t have a right to compete as an active productive factor; they are the passive victims of economic conditions, just like the poor and middle class people expected to suck it up and deal with austerity measures that leave the wealthy and their corporate interests largely unaffected.


Another WSJ article notes that job recruiters now “troll” Facebook looking for candidates. This is just another manifestation of why it becomes increasingly difficult to opt out of Facebook, and also why its potential for surveillance and discipline is only beginning to be tapped. If recruiters start searching for certain things in Facebook profiles in order to find or weed out candidates for positions, imagine how much more intense the personal branding on the site will become. This subsumption of social life to the perpetual job search is maybe not the most pressing ramification of increasing precarity, but it is one of the more insidious.


Matt Yglesias notes the increase in the wage premium to college education and draws this somewhat insouciant conclusion: “The basic shape of things is that the college wage premium is quite high and appears to be growing, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that college is also very expensive. This is particularly true when you consider that most people seem to enjoy college quite apart from the pecuniary benefits, in part because it’s often possible to get someone else (parents, the government, etc.) to pick up a share of the tab.” I’m not sure how much irony should be read into that; it seems we should never stop being surprised at the punishing costs of higher education and the resulting rationing of the wage premium.  (That’s why student protests against tuition hikes could be considered a kind of labor dispute as well.) It’s worth considering the cause-and-effect relation here a little bit: the wage premium is presumed to permit colleges to charge more for their credentialing service, as a tight job market continues to make those credentials more useful to employers in sorting through candidates. Optimistically the credentials would speak to actual skills in the candidate, though the degree to which that is true is open for debate. It seems possible that a degree is a proxy for an eagerness to comply with institutional rules as well as signalling the possession of a pliable middle-class habitus already sympathetic to the established order. Also, it’s becoming increasingly less possible to get someone else to foot the bill for the collegiate good times. The inflation in college costs means degree earners are either wealthy, good at navigating bureaucracies to meet their individual goals, or deeply in debt. All of these bode well for employers — degree holders understand the system benefits them or they are so deeply in hock that they can’t be anything other than quiescent and grateful to those willing to give them a job. The point: The wage premium is a weird argument in favor of the college education system as it is. It doesn’t seem to indicate the value of the education or skills acquired there so much as it denotes the degree to which the system can shake down students and bar those who won’t be meek subjects in the oligarchy. The larger the wage premium, the more the system needs to be reformed.