The Erosion of Worker Benefits

My father and I were talking the other day about the immense gains the labour movement made in the 20th century; not just at the start of the century when they fought child labour, exploitative working conditions, long hours, dangerous facilities, and other abuses, but also the introduction of benefits like pensions, health insurance, paid leave, and other measures intended to promote employee health and satisfaction. Such benefits were at one point standard in a lot of jobs, and indeed the very nature of work was somewhat different. People lived in a world where jobs were typically long term with room for advancement, and where there were incentives to stay over time.

Today, we live in a highly mobile working era. More people than ever before are freelancing, in some cases running their own businesses and in others supplementing other work with freelance income. Others move from workplace to workplace to take advantage of shifts in the market, or because they’re not provided with any real incentives to stay with a given company. Why do so, when the company doesn’t offer competitive wages and benefits, and someone else offers a better deal?

The loss of benefits was a truly tragic erosion of worker rights, and it can be attributed to the failure to support the labour movement. As my father put it, his generation let labour gains slide because they were reaping the benefits. They had healthy, safe workplaces with access to benefits and fair wages, and they didn’t need to fight for these things. Ergo, they didn’t, and as a result, workplaces started to take advantage of the fact that employees didn’t appear to be noticing the slow attrition occurring. It didn’t happen all at once; no company was foolish enough to yank its benefits packages in one fell swoop, but still, it happened.

Today, finding work with benefits is harder than ever before, and it seems almost novel. When a friend gets a job offer with any kind of benefits, we all crowd around in awe. Partially that’s a product of the kinds of fields my friends are in and who I associate with, but it also speaks to a larger trend in society, one where benefits are less present, and can’t be expected. The idea that an employer might provide healthcare, for example, isn’t a given, unless it’s a very large company or you work in an area where it’s mandated.

As for paid sick leave, vacation days, family leave, and other things that should be standard, well, again. They’re remarkable and will inspire much awe if you’re among the fortunate few to have won that particular job lottery. Pensions and retirement plans are also rare, and companies are even attacking pensions that people have already paid for through their work, indicating that the war on benefits is only going to escalate. It’s not enough to just not offer them, apparently, now we need to actively take them away from people who thought they were part of the terms of the employment contract.

We need to see a change in the way workers are viewed and treated in the United States; many people can agree on this. As it is now, workers are objects for exploitation, rather than human beings with their own needs, struggling to survive in a very harsh economy. Many workers are fighting a rising cost of living that makes it difficult for them to afford basic needs, let alone save money and make preparations for the future. Others are working in unsafe conditions because as the support for labour thins, the bravado on the part of companies that want to exploit employees increases. Explosions in coal mines and on board oil rigs highlight the critical need for increased industry safety, and union members are among those calling for investigations, but they’re being ignored.

As we start to see unions getting more active, trying to extend to a larger audience, and fighting to improve the lives of workers, I see a repeat of battles already fought, won, and then given away. And I worry about entering the same cycle; that if we manage to secure better rights for workers, that if benefits once more become routine, that if we can put a stop to the exploitation of freelancers, that if we can improve workplace safety, that our generation and the one that follows us will turn complacent, because their workplaces will be safe, happy, healthy, and productive.

And I want to know how we can prevent this cycle from repeating, how we can look out for the interests of future workers to ensure that they never have to go through this again. I note that despite the best efforts to preserve our history and talk about the legacy of the labour movement in the 20th century, the only people who really paid attention to it were a small subset of society, while everyone at large went along as they were. And then seemed genuinely surprised when they found out that this was a harsh world for workers, and one where companies were valued over the people they employed.

How do you force people to remember history, and to maintain the awareness that once you have gained ground, you cannot relax, even for a minute, because someone will try to take it back again? How do you prevent a problem like this from happening again, and remind people that the things they take for granted could be taken away in the flash of an instant?