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August 20, 2007

More on the vaycay question

By Kathy G.

The results of the time use study I wrote about in the last post might seem to confirm the conservatives’ argument that Americans don’t want or need mandated time off. The logic would be that economic growth has enabled us to purchase more leisure, in the form of labor-saving devices and outsourced domestic work. So it could be argued that we’ve chosen to take our productivity gains in the form of higher wages rather than more vacation time.

There may be something to this, especially for workers with families. Given the choice of a) few or no vacation days, but higher wages, which can be used to outsource domestic work, which in turn provides more leisure time to be with their kids on a daily basis, b) lower wages, more domestic work, and less time with the kids on a daily basis, but more extended time with them (in the form of a long vacation), I suspect most people who have kids would choose a).

But ultimately I'm not buying this argument. The fact is that no one really knows what employees’ preferences are, because no one has asked us. Few workers have the power to negotiate this kind of thing directly with their employer. And even those who do may be reluctant to take time off, because of the collective action problem Ezra described in his piece. There's a wonderful book called Time Bind by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild that documents this phenomenon. It’s a case study of a company that had great work-family policies, but few workers who were taking advantage of them. It turned out that, although corporate policy said one thing, the corporate culture was to work long hours, and most employees who wanted to get ahead put in lots of overtime and took very little time off.

The institution best suited to communicate employee preferences to employers is, of course, a union. But very few U.S. workers belong to unions, and this state of affairs is unlikely to change any time soon. I’m not a lawyer but I do know something about labor law – I took a law school course in it. And one big problem with American labor law is that it doesn’t allow any employee organizations except unions. No workers’ councils, no advisory committees, no nothing – it’s a union or nothing at all.

Apparently, most employers and most unions want it that way. But there’s a good case to be made that this works to the disadvantage of the American worker. In fact, the economist Richard Freeman makes this argument in a very interesting book. However, to have worker committees that could discuss employment conditions with management, we’d have to substantially rewrite labor law, and that will probably only occur if we have a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and at least 60 solid Democratic votes in the Senate.

August 20, 2007 in Labor | Permalink

Comments

It is my vague recollection that that rule of labor law was actually intended to be pro-union, in that it was designed to prevent management from creating a sham worker protection association that was not a true union. Perhaps others more familiar with this area of law can clarify.

Posted by: alkali | Aug 20, 2007 4:45:04 PM

Alkali, yes, that was the rationale behind the law. But the problem is that the same law makes it illegal to form any other kind of employee organization. And I think that in a lot of cases, an organization that stops short of being a union would be better than nothing.

Theoretically I guess the law could be rewritten so as to outlaw fake, employer-controlled unions, yet still allow other kinds of employee organizations. But in practice it might be very difficult.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Aug 20, 2007 5:37:40 PM

My point was really that it's not quite accurate to portray that aspect of labor law as some kind of insidious anti-labor plot. I don't really know enough to say whether it's outlived its usefulness or not, or whether there have been any serious pro-worker proposals to amend the law in that respect.

Posted by: alkali | Aug 20, 2007 6:06:00 PM

"The fact is that no one really knows what employees’ preferences are, because no one has asked us."

Try "The Overworked American", by Juliet Schor, formerly Associate Prof. of Economics at Harvard and now at Boston College.

Posted by: John | Aug 20, 2007 6:46:41 PM

Sometimes the one piece of knowledge you have just doesn't fit the problem.

I find it hard to believe that an "advisory council" would do much better than public polling organizations or just plain common sense in learning what workers feel about vacations. Provide 80 hours a year of paid time off, take it back if they reach 320 hours in the 'bank', and be fair in scheduling vacations.

But what really happens is, you can use it as vacation time or sick time, or ask for it to be paid out, but there's less of it, unless you need childcare, in which case you can kiss your advancement goodbye, and you can have your vacation in February. Hey! What's not to like?

But the real killer is probably the number of people working two jobs and not getting enough hours on either of them to accumulate paid leave. Not to mention scheduling leave with two different employers.

At the bottom line the 40-hour week and the paid leave are about creating a stable healthy workforce. And those just aren't things we value highly right now.

Posted by: serial catowner | Aug 20, 2007 6:57:40 PM

that will probably only occur if we have a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and at least 60 solid Democratic votes in the Senate

Because of what you and alkali point out, which implies the likely opposition of unions, the change you seek might be more likely with Republicans in charge, or at least a mixed Congress.

I wonder what Mr. Nut, our sometime resident labor union lawyer, thinks about workers' councils.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 20, 2007 7:04:24 PM

I don't know what workers would choose-- more vacation or higher pay-- if they had more bargaining power.

But I am not sure that the workers' choice is the only variable with respect to the public policy question. Remember, vacations affect total workforce productivity. Either vacation time reduces productivity by reducing total hours worked (as I suspect) or vacation time increases productivity by producing a more rested and efficient workforce (which I doubt, but which I will concede is possible). Either way, whether we want more or less of it is a public policy question and not simply a matter of the individual preferences of workers.

Posted by: Dilan Esper | Aug 20, 2007 8:42:07 PM

It is of course going to vary greatly by industry. Say a salmon fisherman, or crab fisherman.. high pay every time. A miner, or other laborer likely I would guess would be inclined to more time off. A computer scientist or other professional worker that may take more of a career approach to his vocation may well want the higher pay INSTEAD of the vacation if only because he enjoys his work enough to not want to spend that much more time away. Yes there are some people out there.

Just a blanket statement.. what would 'the workers' say paints this country with far fewer colors then it needs to show the real picture.

Posted by: dave b | Aug 20, 2007 9:25:07 PM

I think the mistake here is thinking that a "corporate culture" is somehow the construct of management. A corporate culture is dynamic and about group behaviors. Which is to say the pressures, in white collar workplaces where a corporate culture encourages overtime and little time for vacations is not something that just changes from the top. It's a cultural change that needs to happen at every level. A government mandate, which seems to be what people are still fixated on, just won't get you there. It's not that employers don't know what employees want, it's that balancing those wants with the needs of the business makes for rough compromises that no one, necessarily, likes. Really, it's rare to find an executive (as Kathy's story points out, executives were actually surprised by the findings) who intended for a corporate culture that has people slaving unhappily at long hours feeling they can never take a break. You don't, really, need a study to know that's unhealthy.

Again, this has a lot to do with our service economy focus, and the fact that so many people have jobs that are defined more by service to a client or a customer then by, say, something being made or manufactured (PowerPoint decks don't count). In these service jobs, it's much harder to do things like standardize work so anyone can take a project, or to overstaff to the extent that losing one body won't make a big difference... as opposed to a factory where each task is well defined and workers are more easily replaceable, and the task less dependent on exactly one person's training or expertise.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 20, 2007 11:42:42 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 11, 2007 7:37:38 AM

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