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Sweatshops and Unions
(January 2, 2003) - 
We've always imagined that the home of the future might just have an 'electronics cage' in the backyard somewhere. It would be the place where the cell phones, computers and other work-related monitoring devices were kept, a kind of 21st Century gun cabinet. It would be the only place in the home where work was done for the employer. The dangerous devices would be stored in the 'cage' so that family accidents were avoided.

As the past couple of years bled on and on, we put this idea on the back-burner. In a flurry of business development, we traveled the countryside, always available by email or phone. We allowed the workday to creep up to sixteen or seventeen hours as the result of cost cutting measures, happy to be rid of the expenses and joyous about the work. That's what a recession is like.

We were sobered recently as we read "White Collar Sweatshop: The Deterioration of Work and Rewards In Corporate America". Apparently, we're not alone. Work has come to occupy huge portions of the lives of American citizens (in a way that is somehow humorous in the rest of the world). Meanwhile, wages, on the whole, have stagnated or declined for at least two thirds of the population. Health care benefits, which used to be broad and comprehensive are eating away at the folks who are treading water. 

In large portions of our workforce, work takes more time and only pays what it did a quarter of a century ago. The situation is even worse with the bottom 10% who are generally earning 15% less than they did in 1975. Layoffs, which we've always seen as a healthy sort of correction, appear to virtually guarantee long term lower wages and a lengthy period of unemployment.

It's fair to say that we're feeling a bit Pollyannaish. It looks like we were mistaken when we generalized our experience to the entirety of the Baby Boom. If the facts and details presented in "White Collar Sweatshop" are even close to true, then there's far more to the next generation of recruiting than a clever branding campaign.

From what we can tell, the price paid by workers who have not been able to be hyper-flexible has been enormous. Under-educated and under-skilled, the bottom two thirds of the workforce represents an extra-ordinary opportunity to deal with the coming labor shortage. But, it's going to be a complicated process.

Although we're hardly pro-union, the more we read, the more we came to believe that there's an emerging role for them in the solution to this problem. Although we doubt that the efforts to organize around the issue will find much traction, there seems to be a serious question of social justice involved. "White Collar Sweatshops" will make you wonder whether or not a union is a good thing.

- John Sumser

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