Workers’ Hours and Productivity in US, UK, and France

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/productivitymeasures/bulletins/internationalcomparisonsofproductivityfinalestimates/2014

Grenoble  There was an interesting aside to the conversation about political “break” movements in Europe and the United States at the ACORN International meeting. When the discussion turned to what the election of Macron as President of France would mean to the renewed efforts to dilute the famous French labor code, Antoine Gonthier, one of the senior organizers for ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble, pointed out what he saw as ironic that for all of the corporate bashing of the labor code in France, French workers were more productive than those of other countries including the United States and United Kingdom. I replied that I had also seen numbers that indicated that the US workforce was more productive, but it was a minor point, and we moved on with the discussion. Nonetheless, it seemed important, so it kept nagging at me until I could look it all up.

It turns out that Antoine and I were both right, but even where we were wrong it illustrates the point, and, unfortunately, why the corporatist movement is gaining ground in France. A fairly recent report on the latest 2014 statistics by the Office for National Statistics in Great Britain comparing productivity across several measures for the G-7, the most highly industrialized countries in the world, went through the numbers pretty closely.

So, the ledge Antoine was gripping firmly for the French working class was productivity per hour worked. There German workers kicked everyone’s south side hard with a significant lead. French and American workers were pretty much what-and-what, but the French were very narrowly ahead, making Antoine and I more in agreement than either one of us might have realized at the time. Luckily our Canadian and British organizers had stayed out of the conversation because they took up the rearguard on these issues with Japan getting the worst mark, then Britain and then Canada with even the much maligned Italian workers more productive per hour.

When the GDP or Gross Domestic Product was measured, the American workers were more than one-third higher per worker than the French, and the French led other G7 countries in 2nd place with Italy right behind them and Germany farther back. Once again Canada was only ahead of the UK and Japan.

But where it really got dicey was looking at the hours worked per week over the 20-year period between 1993 and 2014. In 1993, workers in the G7 were relatively close together. The average was slightly over 33 per week with the US at a tad over 35 hours per week and Japan over 36 with France close to 32 hours per week and Germany just below 30 hours per week. Sweat forward 20 years and France’s hours worked per week per worker was down a full 5 hours, while the US worker had only dropped a smidgen to a little under 35 hours per week. Italy, Japan, the UK, and Canada were all around 33 hours, and Germany was around 26 hours per week and France was around 28 hours per week. These may not reflect victories that French grandfathers won, as much as what their fathers delivered.

The weaknesses of the US labor movement and the strength of US business and their political allies have forced American workers to continue to keep their shoulders to the wheel. Take the lack of family and sick leave in the US as a prime example of this. French corporations pushing for labor law reform and perhaps even UK interests trying to keep British workers farther away from European standards, clearly have their hearts set on holding the line on productivity, increasing automation, and fighting hammer and tong to get more hours worked every week, and are committed to chaining Macron to that wheel until he delivers.

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Please enjoy these new releases, Thanks to KABF.

Emily Saliers – Long Haul

Billy Bragg – The Sleep of Reason

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Hard Changes Coming to France?

Paris   The day began with an ominously when I woke up at 2:05 AM for my 2:45 AM ride to the 3:17 AM train to Budapest. After taking a shower, I realized that in the dark, I had misread the time, and it was now 12:20 AM, not 2:20 AM. It was going to be a long day!

The 3:17 AM to Budapest was a workers’ milk run to the city. Tired men and women would slump into their seats and then immediately doze off in a practiced part of their routine. The train hit Budapest 4 minutes late, and I knew I only had 8 minutes then to find the ticket machine, get a ticket, find bus 200E and make to the airport for my 6:25 AM flight, where I could doze off in my practiced routine.

And, then on to Paris. With the election of the Macron government and his new party, Marche, which has disrupted French politics, hard changes were projected with hard fights in the future to see whether he would succeed or would the resistance.

The first change I noticed though was the McDonalds in the guts of Terminal 1 at Charles DeGaulle Airport. Of course it was huge. That was predicable, but it was also all automatic. Orders had to be placed on a eye-level robotron machine where you picked through your selection, to go or in-house, card or cash, and then went to a counter to pay and pickup, or not. Where you would think automation would mean less workers, I had never seen so many. There were people to help you learn the machine. If you were eating there, a worker brought you order to your table. Yes, to your table! Everywhere we looked there were staff people by the dozens. Our affiliates in France had been working on the McDonald’s organizing campaign and the fight for higher wages and workers’ voice there, as well as the opposing the use of GMOs, which are largely vilified in France. I noted all of this with interest, mentally tabulating the contradictions.

Meeting later in the afternoon with several union and community organizers, there seemed to be a feeling that the constant assault on long established labor rights that had endured in France for generations against almost constant attack were in real danger from the new government. Though Macron had run on a merging of left and right policy positions, and had formerly been a minister in the ruling Socialist Party before resigning to pave his own path, there seemed nothing moderate in his proposals for amending labor rights. The rigid and exacting labor rules that make it difficult to displace workers in an arbitrary fashion have long been targeted by business interests. Labor unions are girding for the fight of course, particularly the CGT, which has militantly drawn the line in the past even though a competing workers’ federation has been trying to play a more accommodating role with the new government. All other business, including new organizing, seems to have been pushed aside for the coming struggle.

Nonetheless, even if labor’s efforts were heroic, my friends seem to feel success would be defined in how much was saved compared to how much would be lost in measuring the level of the defeat, rather than optimistically predicting a victory.

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After a Twenty Year Campaign, Aramark and Privatization Shown the Door in Houston

New Orleans  It was a “pinch me” moment when the news finally broke that after United Labor Unions Local 100’s 20-year fight to get rid of Aramark as the food service subcontractor in the giant Houston Independent School District, they were finally being shown the door. The district was close lipped about its decision to not renew the $6 million contract with Aramark, but news reports were clear that the constant complaints and criticisms from food service workers was a critical factor.

Undoubtedly, the soaring cost of this privatization fiasco in Houston was also part of the problem. As the report indicated, there were few sweet nothings being whispered in anyone’s ears about this divorce. Aramark making sure that it left the district with as bad a taste in their mouths as the children they had been feeding, threw a rock through their own glass window dredging up a story from the last century alleging mismanagement of the district of the cafeteria operation. Their parting shot, we took as a relief, because it indicates that they know they won’t be back so they saw no risk in fouling the trough where they have gorged for decades.

Our members are celebrating because they paid for this contract with overwork and underpay, as the food service workforce was decimated in order to line Aramark’s pockets. Where individual schools had previously enjoyed a modicum of oversight and quality control, Aramark lopped off hundreds of jobs in order to establish a central kitchen that would deliver tens of thousands of meals to the individual schools. It’s not hard to imagine the daily problems of such a mammoth enterprise!

Local 100 was recently successful in winning an agreement from the HISD to raise the wages for food service workers, and more recently has been campaigning to win an increase in hours for their work in order to improve service and food delivery for the children. Another factor may be the level of lead found in many of the water fountains and kitchen faucets after Local 100 forced the district to begin a comprehensive testing program.

Recent studies by researchers from Massachusetts and Sweden found that outsourcing workers through privatization imposed a wage penalty of up to 7% for janitors and up to 24% for security guards. The same has been true for food services workers, though perhaps worse, because they often have had to endure split shifts and part-time work hours, often lucky to make six hours a day during the school year. The much-loved and iconic “lunch ladies” by children and parents have been starving and impoverished by Aramark for much of their careers.

Despite the horrors of privatization for the last several decades in Houston, the ideology of privatization more than the economics will continue to be at the heart of every campaign as businesses continue to search for profit by pretending that they are always more efficient and better at delivering public services than government, when their only real skill is reducing wages, hours, and workers and in food service, cheaper, low-quality food. At least in Houston we can enjoy the victory for a minute, but there’s still no cure for the plague.

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Please enjoy Pokey LaFarge’s Riot in the Streets.

Thanks to KABF.

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The French Rein in Unions with Carrots and Sticks

french-protests-1024x432Amsterdam   Two very different meetings in Paris on my last day of this European organizing stint left me with an uneasy feeling about the power of the state in dealing with independent, autonomous organizations. One meeting was with the leader of a small national labor federation. The other was with a Green Party European Union parliamentarian and a friend and church-based organizing ally of ours in the Paris region. On reflection, the common theme that disturbed me was the role of state financing, but I’ll get to that.

Unions are complex organizational structures in all countries especially when they have the kind of rich history and tradition one finds in France. In meetings, I have had in the past with the larger confederations I have often wrong footed myself by assuming that the big federations wanted to increase their dues-paying membership. Often that was wrong as I later found out, and as I understood better after an early morning meeting with a smaller union federation. In regular elections held every third year, union workers vote on a sectoral and regional level. With an 8% vote tally, a union is in the winner’s circle with full representation rights in a company and a seat at the sectoral bargaining level as well. 8% also qualifies the federation for direct financial support from the national government. A 3% vote means that the union is recognized by the state to the degree it can send its leaders and staff to state-sponsored trainings and the like.

Dues tend to be relatively low for French unions compared to North American unions, often between 100 and 120 euros per year. Direct government funding for many unions, and certainly all of the larger federations, accounts in large part for the modest dues rates, as well as a major source of union financing that also comes from awards for representing their members through the labor courts. The labor court judges have wide discretion on the awards ranging from a couple of hundred euros to several thousand euros, providing a direct incentive to unions for pursuing a large number of individual member grievances to the labor court stage, as opposed to North American unions that are often bound to pay excessive arbitrator’s costs and never receive an award, even when members are reinstated and win back pay. Our friend in the small union handled an average of 65 cases per month on a membership of 2500!

Recent French labor law revisions also seek to eliminate the many smaller unions and federations and centralize institutional labor. Reaching below the 3% threshold now bars a union representative from handling a member’s case. A co-worker would be allowed to represent a grievant, but not someone from the union, unless they prove more support. With the low rate of union membership density in France, even though unions are seen as relatively strong still, low dues and lower enrollment means that many smaller unions will wither, weaken, and likely die, which is clearly the intention of the government. Given the weird “general” election system and the few workers that really vote on issues of such consequence, I’m almost surprised our doors aren’t being broken down to do get-out-the-vote campaigns for these representation elections, but maybe I’m missing something.

Our pastor friend in our meeting over lunch with the Green Party parliamentarian without warning began to lobby him for a 5% set aside of taxes to fund community organizing. I bit my tongue rather than jumping in with stories from Montreal, Kansas City, and Albuquerque where cities had directed to “recognize” certain neighborhood groups and give them small funding in order not to deal with the rude and unwashed membership-based groups like ACORN. When I asked him later in some horror why he thought this was a good idea, the answer was a roundabout one that had to do with the fact that the tax rate in France for workers was twice that of the rate for employees in the United States. That might be an argument for streets being paved with gold and housing for the poor being built rising to the heavens, but it was not an argument for asserting state dominion over independent and autonomous organizations. The carrot might be the money, but the stick is the permanent control at some level over community organizations, and of course banning them from politics. Simple rule: you pay for it, you own it. Can you imagine negotiating with the government for more expenditures for this or that demanded by the members, and being asked if we would trade state support of our organization for the money needed to win an issue?

Furthermore it would likely produce something very similar to the crisis looming over the French labor movement now facing the need to grow and organize, but without the membership base, membership dues structure, and a culture of membership support that could fuel such drives. The point is not just to be proud of a great history, but also to learn from it.

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Please enjoy these songs from KABF.

Wilco’s Someone to Lose

Green Day’s Still Breathing

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Is Labor Day for Workers or Politicians?

highlight-img2Berlin   Every four years Labor Day marks the official beginning of the “real” campaign for President in the United States. Of course these campaigns are endless and began years and years before for most candidates, like a Hillary Clinton. Even Mr. Surprise Candidate, Donald Trump, has been hard at it for at least a year now. Both candidates had their big-bodied planes in Ohio on the same tarmac on Labor Day. Reporters could run back and forth between the planes. Candidates could nod in each others’ direction and note how important Ohio is as a battleground state. Democrats could show up at some of the few remaining Labor Day parades, marches, picnics, or whatever we might call them and genuflect to what’s left of the remaining power of labor unions, much of which is in fact on the goal line stand defense of politics and elections.

It is worth wondering if Labor Day really exists anymore to celebrate workers and their unions or just an easy access bridge for politicians to have their photo ops with workers, and then move on to more fundraisers and other touchstones of micro-targeting. It goes without saying for most people Labor Day is more the mark of the end of summer and perhaps the beginning of school sessions, and a last chance at a 3-day holiday in the long stretch until Thanksgiving. What’s labor got to do with it?

Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer forwarded me this piece she had gotten commemorating Labor Day, and it’s worth sharing:

In 1894, it [Labor Day] became a national holiday in Canada. The Canadian government was seeking to accommodate the Labour Movement after the rise of the Knights of Labor and the strengthening of unions in the 1880s. Shortly after, the American government followed suit, wanting in particular to offer a counterpoint to May Day, which commemorated the state violence against the 1886 Haymarket demonstrators. The contrast remains between the North American Labour Day holiday and May Day, which is Labour’s day elsewhere. While May Day stands for the international struggle against capitalism, Labour Day signifies the accommodation of workers within the capitalist system. Canada and the U.S. are the only countries where Labour Day rather than May Day celebrates the achievements of workers.

Accommodations are much, much different than achievements, especially with the disappearance of any social contract between labor and management involving an equal sharing of the benefits of work and wealth. When Labor Day becomes little more than a showcase and access point for politicians, that’s an even further dilution of the critical content of the day.

We have to hang on to it of course. At least we have one day that we can still try to claim as our own, since almost every other day of the year seems to celebrate business and the rich for all of us, and perhaps especially for politicians.

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The Dark Side of Works Councils in Germany

DSCN1461Aachen   In the morning and later in the evening, I got a short course on how unions worked in Germany from organizers, staff and leaders at Ver.di, who met with me at their regional headquarters in Dusseldorf. The television screen in their meeting complex might have been translated as if I was giving a training session, but at many times I was being schooled more than they in the basics of how unions worked and the challenges they face in Germany.

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I’ve certainly heard about “works’ councils” for years and even met representatives of such councils from time to time in various delegations or when groups have visited New Orleans or so forth. The perspective from the ground floor where organizers’ work, repeatedly established that when there was a conflict between the theory of workers’ input at the council level within a firm and the reality of whether or not workers could make change or build power through a council, the theory was crushed and thrown out of the window by the crushing weight of the reality. At lunch without as many of the other folks listening, in somewhat of a silent sacrilege, two members of the key regional organizing team asked me what I might advise on how to deal with a work council when they were as much of an issue as the management.

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Certainly in the USA, we can read op-eds and news stories from the corporate point of view that hold works councils as little more than a German artifice that got in the way of what company’s wanted to do. All of which, almost by default, led me to believe they were likely a good thing. Hearing from both organizers and works council members was an education. Councils are basically a meet-and-confer operation with elected leaders in the work place about non-economic terms and conditions of employment. In Germany every business of a certain size and employment is required to establish such a council. On the one hand organizers were finding them an obstacle in organizing because they were often entrenched with unaccountable leadership. In organizing they would initially begin by trying to convince the works council members that a union was a good thing and there should be cooperation and assistance, but often they would find the union had to either organize to take the council over, elect new members, or go around the council, none of which are easy tasks and all of which took time, energy and resources. Councils are elected to four year terms, so if a union is organized in a firm and comes in after the last election, if could be that many years before there’s a chance to deal with them accountably, and that’s a job hard to handle.

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Talking to leaders at works councils at American Apparel retail stores and Home Depot stores, they were unhappy for other reasons. At Los Angeles-based American Apparel, they were hanging in and hanging tough despite the fact that the company was in Chapter 11 reorganization. They felt like they couldn’t get any information or analysis they needed from the company or their American manager. At Home Depot, they felt a union drive and campaign were needed, but troubled about what role they could play. Others were concerned about their powerlessness in dealing with subcontracting and joint employer situations in German law and were critical about whether the union was doing enough to get ahead of these problems either.

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

Jeffrey Raffo on the right

The Rhine-Ruhr valley is at the heartland of labor’s strength in Germany, where unions are still a key part of the economic order. Ver.di is attempting to innovate in organizing and in fact that’s part of how I got to Dusseldorf, because the leader of the newly created organizing team, Jeffrey Raffo, was interested in participating in a dialogue about how community organizing methodology melded with labor organizing technique to create a strong, amalgam of organization. Nonetheless, they all nodded that German unions were also getting weaker, even if not as weak as those in the USA, and works councils were clearly not enough to provide workers protections in the absence of strong unions.

 

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