There was a time when workers who did good work on the job and were loyal to their employers were rewarded with a lifetime job, decent wage, health care and a secure retirement.
Today, the social contract between employers and workers is so broken, Gen Y no longer expects to have those kinds of jobs, says author David Kusnet. A visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and former chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, Kusnet discussed his new book, Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America’s Best Workers Are More Unhappy Than Ever, today at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.
In the book, Kusnet tells the stories of workers who like the content of their work—but not their working conditions—at four companies in the Seattle area: Microsoft, Boeing, Kaiser Aluminum and Northwest Hospital. And they are turning to unions to improve the quality of their work.
That is what happened at Boeing, according to Paul Almeida, president of the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees (DPE), who introduced Kusnet. Almeida was president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) in 2000 when 17,000 union engineers and technicians at Boeing walked out for 40 days to protest working conditions and the inability to do their jobs well.
At every point in the contract negotiations, Almeida says, the workers demonstrated to the owners why making changes would be good for the company. The amazing thing about the strike, one of the longest and largest in private industry, was that the workers sent a clear message that they were striking to save Boeing, not bring it down, he says.
Kusnet says workers in every profession feel like the Boeing workers—they love their work but hate the conditions under which they do their jobs.
People are putting in many more days at work along with their heart, soul and passion, but they are not getting back what they put in. It goes beyond just money.
At each of the companies Kusnet examined, he found issues of quality work and respect were paramount. At Kaiser Aluminum, the company’s founder, Henry Kaiser, was one of the nation’s most progressive capitalists, pioneering in pre-paid health care for employees and on-site child care. But after his death, “corporate cutthroats” tried to squeeze out the union, Kusnet says, leading to a two-week lockout.
At Microsoft, some 6,000 of its 20,000 employees are temporary but have key responsibility for testing new software, according to Kusnet. Rather than giving them full-time jobs, the company requires them to work through a staffing agency, fires them after six months and then rehires them. The workers are frustrated because they don’t have time to adequately test software. After getting fed up with having to rush deadlines before they were fired, workers formed their own high-tech union, Washington Alliance of Technology Workers/CWA.
It’s the same story at Northwest Hospital, Kusnet says. Nurses faced with short staffing could not give patients the attention they deserved and so they formed a union to improve patient care.
The best way to create jobs that workers love and in which they feel secure is for people to join together in unions and to make highly visible statements, Kusnet says. That way, they may inspire others and be advocates for all workers. He says the challenge facing unions is to not only deal with bread-and-butter issues like wages, but to find ways to ensure that workers have the freedom to do their jobs the best way and not just do what management tells them.
Just as the earlier generations joined together to improve conditions, Kusnet says, new generations of workers will go beyond what AFL founder Samuel Gompers said when asked what workers want—“More.”
They will say “Better.” So “More” and “Better” will be the watchwords of the (union ) movement in the future.