workers freedom

economics as if workers mattered

Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Bosses’ State

Pundits are celebrating the first fruits of the post-election bipartisan collaboration, the budget deal that staved off a government shutdown (the government is never actually shut down in these stand-offs, of course; the bombs keep falling, the cages they call prisons are not opened, police brutality continues unabated) for another year. There was some attention to the backroom deal between the White House, Senate Democrats and the Republicans to allow banks to return to the sort of reckless speculation that brought on the financial crisis we are told is now over. (It’s over for the corporations and banks, which are rolling in profits, and they’re the only ones who really count.) It’s a gambler’s dream. If the bets pay off, the banks get to keep the winnings. If they fail, the taxpayers (that is, those of us who must work for a living) have to pick up the tab.

But this was far from the only example of looting. In addition to a raft of tax breaks for the rich, there was a virtually ignored provision that would allow solvent pension plans to slash pension benefits for already retired workers if the plans seem likely to run short of cash in the next 20 years. This is, of course, a real problem. Employers have for decades failed to adequately fund pension plans, relying on rosy projections of robust investment returns to paper over the gap with phone income. When the inevitable fiscal crisis came, instead of coughing up the necessary cash they slashed benefits to future retirees or turned to the federal pension guarantee fund for a bail-out (one always financed on the backs of retirees). The new legislation allows employers to simply “adjust” pension benefits on their own, if the pension trustees (which often include worker “representatives”) agree; but if they don’t agree, the bosses will be allowed to go straight to the federal government for permission.

Los Angeles Times economic columnist Michael Hiltzik was among the few to even notice, and denounce, “the backroom, last-minute congressional deal allowing benefits of millions of retired workers to be shredded.” His conclusion? “It’s even worse than its critics anticipated.” But not for everyone. United Parcel Service stands to save nearly $2 billion from ditching its obligations to a multi-employer pension group it pulled out of in 2007. Workers, meanwhile, could see up to two-thirds of their promised pension benefits vanish into thin air — or more precisely, into the profit side of the bosses’ balance sheets.

Boss Law

If anyone was in any doubt about whose interests the U.S. legal system serves, they need look no further than this week’s unanimous Supreme Court decision holding that Amazon and the subcontractor through which it employs its warehouse workers is entitled to steal time from those workers — not once in a while, but every single day.

Amazon warehouse workers clock out and then spend 25 minutes (sometimes longer) in long lines waiting for security guards to make sure they aren’t “stealing” any of the product of their labor. It takes so long because Amazon doesn’t pay the workers for the time, and so has no incentive to keep the lines moving by staggering shifts or hiring more security guards or dispensing with the searches altogether.

“Justice” Clarence Thomas, writing for a unanimous court, held (in Moshe Marvit’s summary, writing for In These Times):

that the workers are not eligible for pay for the time they spend in the security screenings. The screenings are not the principal activity of Amazon because they were not hired to go through screenings, and they are not integral and indispensable because Amazon could have easily eliminated the screenings. The Court’s argument, then, is that because it is unnecessary for Amazon to execute long security screenings to conduct its business, it need not pay these workers for the required time they spend in these screenings.

It’s wage theft, pure and simple. And because the victims are workers, it’s perfectly legal.

It is not perfectly legal, however, to kill workers. A person who murders 29 workers by deliberately subjecting them to unsafe working conditions faces the possibility of serving as much as six years in jail.

Former Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship was recently indicted on criminal  charges stemming from an April 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners. He faces two counts of conspiracy in widespread safety and health violations and two counts of securities fraud for lying to investors about the company’s safety practices in order to bolster stock prices. The indictment alleges a deliberate scheme to cut back on safety measures in order to maximize production and profitability at the mine, one of Massey’s most profitable.

Blankenship faces a maximum of six years in prison for killing the 29 miners, and up to 25 years and $5 million in fines for defrauding his fellow capitalists. There is, after all, no crime more heinous than robbing capitalists.