It has been interesting to watch how the regulation of employment has changed over the last two years. Despite promises during the campaign, this administration has not protected workers, and in fact, has worked pretty hard to assist employers in dealing with employees.
It is critical to remember that even in a tight labor market, an individual employee only very very rarely has the same leverage in negotiating terms and conditions of employment as does the employer.
Unions, unfortunately, are shrinking in this country and represent, at least in Oregon, something like 13 percent actually represented, but almost 16 percent are covered by those union contracts.
50 years ago, union representation was closer to 40 percent of workers, and those unions were responsible for eliminating child labor, making overtime the law of the land, getting us a 40 hour work week, and many other positive regulations in the workplace. Milton Friedman, the conservative economist at the University of Chicago, once wrote a paper documenting the fact that a union contract benefited non-union employees in nearby employment and increased their wages by approximately 15 percent.
As the percentage of workers represented by unions goes down, the government has stepped in to make sure that employers aren’t taking advantage of employees.
Unfortunately, that has started changing in the last two years. The Wage and Hour Division at the Department of Labor is doing its best to weaken overtime pay protections. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is doing its best to weaken regulations to make workplaces safer.
The takeaway from this is that everyone needs to be aware of what the government is doing to their lives while at work. As former Oregon State Senator Grattan Kerans used to say, “We go to work to earn a living, not to die.” That was true 20 years ago when he was in the senate, and it is true now.
It is also important to remember that while workers’ compensation is a remedy for being hurt on the job, it is not a full remedy. No one gets compensated completely for the injuries they suffer while working, and it is far more important to have a safe workplace and not get hurt, than it is to have a marginally adequate workers’ compensation system.