by Lauren Voswinkel
Last year, during International Workers’ Day, I put forth a call to action: publicly declare your salary, location and job title. This call was answered, en masse, by thousands of people, some actively engaging, others expressing hesitance, fear, or in some cases, disgust, that people would brag about their salary.
When I first envisioned #talkpay as a concept, I wanted to start conversations. I’ve felt that the relationship between employers and employees has been lopsided, and inherently antagonistic when it comes to compensation. #talkpay was meant to normalize discussions about pay. It enabled people to see and share how much people make, with what experience, and where they live, with names attached. This enabled people to compare themselves with those in similar circumstances. And in some cases to do so with people they may know.
This effort was never about bragging and figuring out if people “made too much.” When it comes to labor struggles, this view is anathema to progress of workers as a whole. The observation should be “I make too little!”
Transparency is a critical ingredient in the negotiation and discussion of compensation. For too long, workers have been cast into a struggle with each other. Discussions surrounding minimum wage inevitably lead to exclamations about “untrained/unskilled” workers making as much as a “skilled” profession. However, if you are willing to neglect advocating for your own salary increases after a minimum wage hike, then you are responsible for hurting your own interests! To actively work to keep others’ wages down to preserve one’s own sense of self-worth is the epitome of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
The truth is, we’ve been trained to react this way. We have had our views turned against us by those who have only their own interests at heart. By showing the way rhetoric around labor has been poisoned, we can hopefully push people to reflect on these base impulses.
Discussions about labor, and raising taxes on the rich, are being called a class war. However, the class war has been raging for over a century in the United States, and right now, the people–workers–are losing.
Labor Unions & Workers’ Rights
For most of history, labor and living was fairly decentralized. Typically, villages held a small populace that, for the most part, was self-sustainable. Food, textiles, lumber, all of it was produced in fairly close proximity to the village while the occasional wandering trader stopped through with rarer goods.
As populations grew, small towns and villages continued to hold the most potential for labor. Tradespeople plied their trade in town centers around which the food production still revolved. Population centers grew, attracting more roaming traders coming to markets. This accelerated due to industrialization in the late 18th and 19th centuries. These earlier systems were not without their abuses and problems. Perhaps the largest human and workers’ rights violations happened during these transitional times due to chattel slavery. However, as industrialization continued, population centers continued to grow as specialization was valued more and more. Working on factory repair or operation meant your production ability was vastly improved over hand-crafting goods. It was in the ownership of these machines, however, that we first began to see the process Marx termed alienation. Because individual workers could not keep pace with the production speeds of factories, they were driven out of business and pushed into working for factory owners, who often set unreasonable hours under dangerous circumstances for meager pay. These conditions led to a marked decrease in quality of life for people living in cities.
The 1890’s saw the rise of a period of time known as the Progressive Era. There was a popular social consciousness surrounding everything from environmental concerns to worker’s rights, from women’s suffrage, to the rise of communism and socialism. Many people were concerned about the wellbeing of society as a whole, with the understanding that if we protect and help the least among us, the rest will benefit as well. This wasn’t without horrifying racism and sexism which were, and are, still very much alive and well. Muckrakers, who were writers and journalists working undercover, wrote scathing treatises exposing the rank corruption and depravity many workers faced to the world at large.
With these abuses laid out before the public, many began saying that there was a need for change. People began more earnestly embarking in practices of collectivism. Trade unions gained significant traction with organized strikes and open discussion of salary negotiations. Collective bargaining completely and utterly relied on honest discussion of wages with peers, and to a large degree, with the public at large. Any time a strike occurred, entire communities would come together to support each other because it was commonly understood that a win for one trade would yield a ripple for the other trades, and business nearby as well.
This collectivism remained alive and well through the Great Depression. President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies saw the further rise of unions, particularly with the implementation of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NRLA). This set into law a worker’s right to openly discuss wages with their peers for the purposes of labor organization. It became illegal to discipline a worker for attempting to form a union where they worked as well. These protections were perhaps the biggest boon to unions, and consequently workers as a whole, in the history of the United States.
Collectivism and workers’ rights remained a strong and potent force in the coming decades. World War II saw communities coming together to do their part as never before, pushing to make collective sacrifices for the war effort. However, this sense of community began to erode shortly thereafter. The McCarthy Era, described by some as an anti-communist witch hunt, had people within communities at each others’ throats over the smallest infractions. Collectivism became synonymous with Communism. In response to continued collective action on the part of unions, the Taft–Hartley Act of 1947 was rammed through Congress over President Truman’s veto. This act barred many of the actions unions utilized to create bargaining power, while placing further restrictions on the few actions that were deemed permissible. The bill even went so far as to push union leaders to file affidavits with the US Department of Labor stating they were not, in any way, affiliated with the Communist Party, and were not seeking to overthrow or undermine the US government. One key component of the bill was that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was given discretionary power in seeking injunctions against employers and unions who were thought to have violated the act.
The death blow for unions came in the 1970’s. Factories began shipping work overseas, which vastly reduced the costs of production for manufacturers. It was no longer so completely infeasible to relocate manufacturing processes. The main leverage point for unions–companies’ need to employ local labor–was pulled out from under them. As unions began to wane, the prevalence of open salary negotiations also faded. The community of workers in a given place was replaced with the atomic family, and it became a very competitive world even within communities. This was further spurred on by an economic boom in the 1980’s created by Reaganomics-type policies. The finance industry exploded, and suddenly everyone felt like they could become a millionaire. This attitude firmly obfuscated the understanding that had held unions together, that worker’s rights and corporate interests were diametrically opposed.
The Opposition Framed
With the explosion of publicly traded companies and the increasingly predatory practices of the financial industry, we started to see a strong push for corporate performance. Corporations are legally bound to provide their shareholders with as much return on investment as possible. If a shareholder board feels that a company is not upholding this obligation, company executives can be brought to court to prove their actions were in the best interests of the shareholders. Investors started pushing more and more for reductions in the bottom line. This pressure is what led to overseas outsourcing of manufacturing. It’s what led to union busting practices, including the use of people trained in industrial psychology, management, and labor law who worked for consultancies that helped companies implement labor regulations. This skirted the restrictions put in place by the NLRA of 1935. These consultants also notified the NLRB of perceived infractions on the part of unions, causing unions to become the targets of corruption investigations, and leading to the decertification of union organizations, such as the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. It is worth noting that the number of decertifications tripled in the 1970s compared to previous decades. The climate for workers’ rights became actively hostile due to media campaigns actively reporting on these investigations, as well as the political rhetoric put forward by President Reagan.
This is not to suggest that the history of unions, and the way unions exist today, is free of flaws. There were heinous abuses of power in these organizations. Anywhere there is power, clout, and leverage to be had, there will be corruption and underhanded deals. To let the exceptions to the rule cloud the perception of unions’ value to workers as a whole is to be deluded into believing a saw will cause nothing but bodily harm.
To illustrate the power of unions, and therefore collective action, one need only look at the correlation between union membership and average salary in the US. Union jobs exerted a market-level influence on salaries. The wage increases fought for by union professions were an alluring draw for many. In order to attract talent, non-unionized fields needed to offer higher and higher salaries. As union membership fell, these positions and industries were seen more and more as an exception and as excessive or wasteful. Furthermore, as membership fell, unions lost their leverage and were not as powerful a force in the aggressive negotiations with employers.
The Current Situation
I’ve ranted about the history of labor in the US for a while now. Why does it matter? As I’ve said, workers, and by extension, the majority of the country, are losing the class war that has been waged for decades. Through the loss of our collective practices, we have been pressed into fighting each other over what scraps are being handed out. If we look at Western economies, we come to see that who owns the means of production is not necessarily the primary limiting factor anymore. Production of physical goods is less and less important in the economy. Combine that with the knowledge that freeform production methods are becoming more rapidly available (i.e. 3d printing, community maker spaces) and it underscores the problems that have always existed in Western societies. Access to capital is the main barrier to actualizing an idea.
The problem is that investors, by and large, are rewarded for extracting as much value as they possibly can out of their investments. Once capital is obtained, the goals of an organization are realigned to focus primarily on the return on investment (ROI). Huge parts of that bottom line are spent on employee salaries. This obsession with ROI is what has fundamentally driven all of this union busting. We are targets in a conflict that only benefits the few. Alone, workers lack the social capital and knowledge in order to make informed and beneficial decisions. Our lives, salary, and in many ways, our value as people are diametrically opposed to the whims of investors and the finance “industry”. This is what we have to push back on. Redistribution of wealth is necessary now in order to create an economic recovery that does not simply benefit the monied elite. Whether that redistribution happens through governmental involvement, or through grassroots collective action, it doesn’t matter. We must push back on the trends that lead to increasing devaluation of human life.
Last year, we openly discussed salary information in order to break taboos. I am putting out the call to continue that trend, this time for anyone and everyone. Inside the tech sector, and externally, we all need to push back against the silence that only benefits the few. We need to #FightFor15. We need to #talkpay. We need to normalize these discussions so we can raise our voices collectively and say that we, as people, are worth more than what we’ve been begrudgingly given.
On May 1st, 2016, I implore everyone to #talkpay yet again.
Lauren has been a developer for over a decade. Growing up, her father was a union carpenter who imparted a strong sense of community and workers’ rights to her at a young age. It was because of her experiences of being underpaid and her father that she started #talkpay last year on International Workers’ Day.