By Christian Barranco
Labor Day, this year, finds the American worker in a pretty good place. Jobs are plentiful, unemployment is down and business is competing for talent. Aside from politically-inspired recession fears, the U.S. economy is strong and will get stronger when international trade deals are completed and approved by Congress.
None of this suggests, however, that there are not serious concerns about the future of work in America and that labor, business and government need to prepare for them now. The concerns are the result of greater workplace automation, government interference in business and tension within the labor movement itself. The first two are solidly linked.
Recent political interference in the economic contract between workers and businesses is celebrated as a populist fairness issue. The politicians’ demands for higher minimum wages and more personal benefits for employees are, however, backfiring for private-sector workers as evidenced by declining jobs for restaurant workers and employment for teenagers. This should not come as an unexpected outcome. Politicians were told of the consequences of their policies, but ignored them. The success of any legislative endeavor is not measured by its intent but by its result. The more mandates government heaps on business, the bigger incentive it creates to eliminate jobs and the growing reams of government red tape.
Rather than accepting more government mandates that drive up the cost of hiring lower skilled people, business is acting predictably by eliminating as many low-skilled jobs as possible. Robotic automation is beginning to displace the hamburger flipper, the warehouse worker and soon, delivery people.
Automation may be a workforce inevitability as a 2013 study by Oxford University academics called The Future of Employment points out. That study examined 702 common occupations and found many of today’s ordinary jobs will either disappear or be greatly altered by computerization. The jobs cuts and changes from technology comes on top of the misguided emotional and financial investment in globalization that over three decades altered the American workplace landscape. Globalization moved manufacturing and other good paying jobs to Third World nations; leaving behind low-paying service jobs such as baristas.
There is a rightful place for government in the workplace – see Teddy Roosevelt’s reforms – but the current progressives are doing more harm to private-sector workers than good and hastening job displacement while increasing the gulf between public and private sector employees.
Government mandates such as the $15 minimum wage and extended family leave are adopted eagerly by governments that face no pressure to hew to the bottom line. But businesses must adhere to a more responsible course or face the consequences – and that includes adopting automation. Governments are slow adopters of technology that increases efficiency and lessens the cost of labor – and the consequences of governments foot dragging hits taxpayers’ pockets.
The current fractured political landscape has not only polarized voters, it is polarizing workers as well. Those in the private-sector see their living standards eroded by increasing taxes to support the escalating cost of public-sector labor — and their careers threatened by extremist demands of the left on climate and environmental issues. Public-sector unions reflect the values of liberal politicians they work under and report to. They favor fanciful ideas like the Green New Deal and oppose sensible ideas such as pipeline and nuclear power plant constructions – which not only bring cheap energy to households, but create thousands of private-sector jobs.
The public workers can afford to embrace the left’s concepts because their jobs are not threatened by them. The private-sector workers cannot be so cavalier.
Eventually technology will win out, as it always has, and public and private sector jobs will change. But to soften the blow to workers from rapid change, government, business and labor must work closer together to develop ways to streamline the transition from today’s jobs to those of the very near future. Politician must be more thoughtful and responsible in their edicts that affect business – and mindful that their job is not to score cheap political points at the expense of business, but to be partners with business and labor in sustaining a strong economy.
Christian Barranco is a union electrician; the founder of the NJ Rough Riders Society – labor-business-government “advocacy” organization. He will soon be launching a new organization – called Square Deal For NJ — focusing on finding solutions to NJ’s economic and social problems.