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Workers - highly paid or not - demand to be treated with respect

What has the recently averted Railroad Strike got to do with the difficulty of finding workers in fast food restaurants? To explain the connection, I have to tell a personal story.

I recently visited a close friend in the Adirondack Mountains. On the way, I stopped off at a McDonalds in Lake George, NY, to grab a bite. There was a customer on the line in front of me placing an order. A worker behind the counter taking the order looked to be 12 or 13 though of course he must have been older because of child labor laws. This worker was having a VERY HARD time taking down the order. He kept looking over the order slip, writing things down, looking again and somehow, he never got around to getting the money from the customer and actually placing the order. After watching this for a while, I gave up and went elsewhere.

A couple of days later, on my way back home I stopped off at the same McDonalds. Much to my surprise, I found a sign on the window saying, “due to staffing shortages, there is no inside service. Please send your order on line.” After sending an order on line, we would then wait at the take-out window. Rather than do that, the friend I was with and I decided to go elsewhere.

In a mini-mart attached to a gas station, I struck up a conversation with the clerk --- a young woman who was clearly an adult either in her 20s or 30s. Not a teenager like the McDonalds employee. I remarked that there appears to be a labor shortage for fast food workers in the area. (I imagined it was because the year-round population in such areas is not very high.) I wondered if my impression were correct. She said my impression was correct. “You know why?” she asked, “…because these managers treat us like dirt. And we won’t stand for it anymore.” She then said she has made clear to a number of her former employers that she wouldn’t take any disrespect from them. I then mentioned the staff shortage at the local McDonalds and she responded, “They’re the worst!”

NOW I know that the old adage “a sample of on means nothing” is important here. I have said the same thing to my students many times. To assume that this individual clerk’s opinion describes how managers at fast food restaurants --- in general -- treat their employees would be wrong. Nevertheless, anecdotes can be useful. What I learned from that conversation with this one individual is that a rising resentment at mistreatment by managers WHEN THAT OCCURS appears to be translating into a shortage of low paid workers. With the national unemployment rate quite low, more and more workers are not willing to “take it” any longer. Instead, they walk.

Something else of note: This worker did not say she and her co-workers get paid too little. Perhaps that’s a given. Instead, she was concerned about being treated with dignity.

This is where the issue of the averted railway strike comes in. What were the workers and management fighting about? Work rules. Here are some illustrative quotes from a New York Times article detailing issues in the now averted strike:

“To defuse a labor dispute that brought the nation to the brink of a potentially catastrophic railroad strike, negotiators had to resolve a key issue: schedules that workers say were punishing, upending their personal lives and driving colleagues from the industry…

Unions complained that to manage a shortfall of employees, the carriers effectively forced their members to remain on call for days and sometimes weeks at a time, partly through the use of strict attendance policies that could lead to disciplinary action or even firing. They said the policies pushed workers to the limits of their physical and mental health.”

[These quotes are from Noam Scheiber and Niraj Chokshi, “Workers Say Railroads’ Efficiency Push Became Too Much,” September 15, 2022, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/15/business/economy/railroad-workers-strike.html]

These rules so tightly scheduled the workers that they literally were fined for getting sick, going to the doctor and missing work.

After the tentative deal was announced, the two unions said it included “contract language exempting time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies.”

Why are issues like work rules so significant? There are two ways for businesses to get more output from a given number of workers working a given number of hours. Both of these show up in statistics as an increase in “productivity.” But this measured increase in “output per hour of work” actually masks two important differences. A true increase in productivity involves improved machinery or technology that permits workers to generate more output WITH THE SAME EFFORT. (Substituting supermarket scanners for the old fashioned cash registers is an obvious example. So is improving the size and capabilities of a combine that an agricultural worker drives.)

But there is another way management can get more output out of a given amount of labor hours. Increase the INTENSITY with which workers work. Make them work faster. Carefully monitor their breaks, etc. This increases the EFFORT workers make with the SAME TECHNOLOGY. The increased effort takes a toll on workers and the railroad workers had reached their limit. Hence the threat to strike. It appears the workers made some gains but not as much as they were hoping for.

Of course, as with all agreements, the devil is in the details. Despite anecdotal evidence of worker dissatisfaction, we don’t really know what the rank-and-file (in general) feel about the tentative agreement --- and probably won’t get the result of membership ratification votes for weeks if not months.

And by the way, railroad workers are very well paid. Their pension is more generous than social security. But just as with the fast-food workers, they too have been resisting management’s efforts to turn them into virtual automatons on the job. Again, the issue is one of dignity --- the same issue expressed by the angry mini-mart worker in Lake George NY.

But there is a big difference between these two similar problems facing the two groups of workers that are the subject of this commentary. The fast-food worker, the mini-mart clerk, the Starbucks barista, etc. are all pressured put by managers --- whether presented with a light touch or total arrogant disrespect. However, unlike railroad workers they do not have a collective voice with which to respond. Railroad workers have a strong union – whose decision to strike brought President Biden to intervene and help broker a settlement because of the danger to the nation posed by such a work stoppage.

By comparison, the fast-food worker has only the option of quitting. At least until they succeed in organizing unions across that industry. And, of course, there is anecdotal evidence that some of these workers are getting the idea and attempting to do just that. More power to them.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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