03 Sep Labor and Employment: Applying Principles
You find out your coworker got a raise and you did not. Worse yet, you believe you do a better job than that coworker does. Worst of all, you suspect you did not get the same raise because your boss does not like you personally, for reasons that are not totally clear to you.
What do you do? Who do you talk to? Perhaps you talk to a friend, possibly other coworkers, or even the human resources department. Maybe you talk with your parents or children. The boldest may confront the boss directly. Many people will simply start looking for another job that will pay what they think they are worth. In some cases, if you believe you are the victim of illegal discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, or otherwise, you might also talk to an employment lawyer.
This common scenario illustrates a basic question about government in America. To put it bluntly, should the federal government be on a symbolic “who to call” list for the employment and labor problems of America? As we head into this Labor Day weekend, this post will explore the role of the federal government and federal politics generally in the country’s factories, offices, and jobsites.
The Welfare of Wage Earners, Job Seekers, and Retirees
Since 1913, one of the agencies of the U.S. Government has been the Department of Labor. Its head, the Secretary of Labor, sits on the President’s cabinet, which is a sign of the department’s status. And the DOL has a mission statement:
To foster, promote, and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment; and assure work-related benefits and rights.
Sometimes it is important to examine one’s biases before analysis begins, and, on this particular topic, Principle Based Politics admits that its initial reading of the DOL mission statement strikes us a little bit like a parent coming to your office to straighten out the above-mentioned boss who didn’t give you a raise. That may be a bias toward keeping the government out of our places of work.
But our process is to lay out the issue, then consider the principles involved, decide which principles control, analyze the likely impact of those principles, and then—and only then—formulate a policy position. So, we will proceed to do that now.
On the issue of the federal role in America’s workplaces and jobs, the applicable leadership principles are integrity, dignity, and service; the key governmental principles are freedom and free enterprise, equality, law and justice, protecting the vulnerable, and (by definition) limited government.
Of these, integrity demands that political leaders not just campaign about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” but that they actually make decisions designed to help our national economy rather than to help them win elections. Dignity looks to ensure that all are treated as well as human beings deserve to be treated. The principle of service, in turn, seeks leaders truly focused on helping people in the long run, rather than just handing out money.
The twin governmental principles of freedom and free enterprise support a philosophy that most workplace and workforce issues can be resolved best by the free markets—if companies do not treat their people right, the people will quit and work elsewhere. In the terms of our limited government principle, the federal government need not intervene in most employment and labor issues, because a free economy will take care of those problems. Equality combines with law and justice, however, to argue for a civil legal system that gives workers a place to seek compensation in cases of employment discrimination. That same judicial system protects the vulnerable, too.
In our view, the controlling principle appears to be freedom and free enterprise. Workers simply can and will vote with their feet against companies that pay inadequate wages and benefits, provide substandard working conditions, and generally fail to consider the welfare of their workforce and retirees. In recent years, capitalism and free markets have brought considerable gains to willing workers in the labor market, especially those in the lower-earning half of that market. Particularly as demographic factors cause workforces to shrink, labor shortages naturally will drive up wages. The judicial system and private lawyers can remedy any discrimination in hiring, promotion, and firing, as well as any workplace harassment.
Reasonable exceptions include short-term unemployment benefits for those who are diligently seeking new work after being laid off. In that situation, the principles of service, dignity, and protecting the vulnerable weigh in favor of providing subsistence payments. Another legitimate role for the federal government is to help fund training for workers displaced by economic shifts and government policies (such as changes in energy sources from coal mining to solar and wind power).
We can take care of the vast majority of our labor and employment welfare ourselves, it seems.
Good Workers, Good Jobs
Before the pandemic hit, America had experienced nearly two years with unemployment rates less than four percent, which was considered “full employment” in economic terms. Unemployment was the lowest it had been since the 1960s. Anyone who pursued a job and could pass a drug test (for jobs that require it) was employed, basically. In fact, the biggest employment problem was the availability of enough workers, especially skilled workers. Then, in one month, Covid-19 increased unemployment levels to 15 percent! Today, the rate is around five percent and getting back to where it was pre-covid.
As a result, as we enter into this holiday weekend, federal policies designed to increase the size of workforce—including through legal immigration—and facilitate the training of workers are the most important aspects of the Department of Labor mission. With the return to full employment, rising wages, and ample job opportunities, the near future should be happy days for labor indeed.
Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics.
Look for his posts twice each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution. Upcoming issues to be addressed will include health care and foreign relations.
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