Employee rights (and wrongs)

Employee rights (and wrongs)

- in Progressive Voices

Like a lot of people, I am a big fan of the television show, "Dirty Jobs," on the Discovery Cable Network. Every week, the show's host goes out for a day and works at an always challenging, sometimes disgusting and often dangerous job.

Our intrepid guide, Mike Rowe, finds and creates humor at the worksite, as he invariably stands and stares in disbelief sometime in the show and comments – "And you do this every day? . . . How many do you do per day or hour?"

But every once in a while, Mike editorializes and makes the point that these people, work on behalf of all of us. Indeed, they make our very civilization and our quality of life possible.

Some do get paid well. Others do not. But all "serve."

In this the season of International Workers' Day (aka "May Day"), I would like to engage the reader in some more unambiguously serious reflections about the recent mine disaster in West Virginia.

This is a tragedy that might have been averted in another nation. Here was a case of a business firm that legally challenged almost every safety citation that the federal government ever charged the enterprise with.

Sweden has a very different approach.

Safety and health committees are required in most industrial and manufacturing facilities and at least half of the members must be elected by non-supervisory employees. These committees have the right to stop dangerous work.

This "right" has not been "abused." Typically, only a few dozen such events happen annually. And deliberate abuse of this right has not been a problem. Many employees today are paid in part by an incentive system. So, there is no solid reason for them to be "flip" about exercising this option.

Most provinces in Canada give individuals and groups of employees the right to refuse to work in an unsafe environment. Moreover, an outside governmental inspector must render a decision about the matter in 24 hours.

There is a similar need for improved worker rights when it comes to "informed consent" regarding worksite hazards such as toxic chemicals. Such notice can be particularly important for employees who work at a job for a considerable period of time. Such a "right to know" is just the sort of "transparency" requirement that we need to make labor markets to work efficiently. After all, perfect information is a textbook element in any successful market economy.

Of course, all of these musings raise complicated issues – incentives to override safety concerns, advantages of unionized firms and their disadvantages, the role of outside agencies and organizations for arbitration and fact-finding, confidentiality questions for employers and employees, long term health effects – to name just a few.

But working models do exist in other advanced countries that feature balanced solutions to these challenges.

What truly makes these problems harder to deal with is the issue of jobs. Employers would be less able to dig in their heels and would have a stronger incentives to constructively deal with work safety and health problems if employment (especially good jobs) were more available.

On this front, an obvious solution would involve strengthening the federal Humphrey-Hawkins full employment law. Currently, the law has no "teeth"; it merely entails acquainting Congress with the current shortfall in jobs and makes no further demands.

After the appearance of "stagflation" during the Carter Presidency and its demise during the Reagan years via tight monetary policy and record high interest rates, we have become complacent about joblessness. Despite the acrimony in the debate over the stimulus package, creative thinking about how we progress on achieving full employment with low inflation has been stymied.

Critics will say – "We don't know how to do this. There's the American model where you create lots of bad jobs and the European social democratic model where you can boast good jobs, but it seems to come with high unemployment."

I admit that I don't have a solution sitting on my desk, but I do believe that issues of unsafe work would be aided by stronger union and employee rights.

In fact, the right to useful, healthy, and challenging work is the real precondition of safer workplaces.

Maybe the solution is to create a new Nobel Prize for Economics that would go to those that figure a way out of this impasse. Or, at least perhaps we can add the task to the list of "Dirty Jobs" that Mike Rowe takes on next season.

William Schweke is a senior fellow at the Durham office of the national research nonprofit, CFED.