On Labor Day, we celebrate work by not working. How appropriate. Our attitudes about work are often contradictory, and current work-related debates raise puzzling questions.
Those pushing for a higher minimum wage say it’s the most direct way to help people at the lowest rung of the economy. But mandating a raise could also harm the people it’s supposed to help if employers cut jobs or move. Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward and a champion of the poor, voted no on the wage hike, arguing that city residents would ultimately suffer.
Nationally, the minimum wage is a centerpiece of the campaign for economic justice. But that may reflect political reality more than economic wisdom. It’s a hot button issue – easy to understand and mobilize around -- though not necessarily an effective strategy in a fluid, global economy.
In fact, creating opportunity for the poor is a complicated challenge. As our economy morphs from blue collar to digital, structural problems are deepening the divide between the haves and the have-nots. The path to the American Dream used to seem clear: Go to school, get a working-class job and let the next generation build on your progress.
Today, that journey includes new obstacles. Good jobs require college degrees or more. Even those who graduate from college face the uncertainties of a churning job market, and student loans may burden their finances for decades. Meanwhile, research shows that family background counts as much as educational achievement as a predictor of economic success.
For these reasons and others, the gulf that separates rich and poor has been growing. Upward mobility has slowed, and many middle-class workers have slipped backward.
Nearly a century ago, the labor movement and the social safety net arose as collective responses to problems that workers could not solve alone. These days, even many liberals believe that solutions lie in creative thinking and digital technology – innovation, not regulation. The zeitgeist celebrates the power and possibility of the individual.
You hear that attitude in the debate over Uber. Many St. Louisans were outraged and embarrassed that St. Louis regulators have blocked Uber so far from entry into the market. Fans of the so-called sharing economy see in Uber a new relationship with work – one that gives employees and customers more control and greater satisfaction. Taxi companies and drivers see the same situation as unfair competition.
Are the rising companies of the new economy enabling workers or exploiting them? Uber drivers are suing the company in California in an attempt to force more support. A recent New York Times article quoted numerous former Amazon employees who described a harshly competitive atmosphere there. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos dismissed the complaints as exaggerated and defended the culture as a way to achieve excellence and instill pride.
Some other tech giants have recently discovered that employees have – or might like to have -- lives outside the office. They’ve expanded leave for mothers and fathers and added other benefits. But it’s not clear how many employees will use them. Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s CEO, is planning to take only limited time off when she gives birth to twins. That sends a message.
People work for money, of course. But for many, the motivations go beyond earning a buck. Some people sacrifice higher pay for a job that provides greater satisfaction through the mission or culture of the workplace. Some sacrifice life outside work because workplace culture or personal ambition requires it. Some can’t find work at all.
All have a stake in the wide-ranging debate that is redefining the balance of power among workers, employers and government regulation.