White collar workers have been feeling the squeeze lately. Productivity has increased by 4% each year since 2000, yet wages have been going up by only 1.5%. Workers are not seeing the gains being produced by their own labor. In large part, this is because companies have workers forced into a corner through downward wage pressure, job insecurity, and healthcare. All of this comes at a time when wage disparity is growing, companies are reporting record profits, and executives are receiving embarrassingly large compensation packages.
Workers have a strong incentive not to press for increased wages and benefits, because they are being threatened by off-shoring and outsourcing. High-tech workers, customer service people, and dozens of other workers face overt threats of losing their jobs to foreign workers. Older workers face age discrimination and forced early retirement. Job security is non-existent in modern America.
Some politicians point to the low unemployment rate as proof there isn’t a problem. It’s true that unemployment remains low- standing at 4.5% in April of 2007. Leaders should be asking about the quality of jobs that are being created. Most are in the retail and service sectors. Many workers taking jobs in these areas are underemployed, meaning they are overqualified for the position or otherwise not utilizing their skills. Other underemployed workers desire full-time positions but are relegated to part time or temporary work.
Healthcare is the issue that threatens to break the camel’s back. Providing healthcare to working age people has traditionally been the domain of employers. This system is breaking down, as companies look to maximize profits by reducing benefits. Only 64% of professional workers receive health insurance through their employers. Nationwide, 47 million Americans (15%) risk financial and bodily ruin by going without any type of coverage. The American healthcare system promotes a system of adverse selection, where those who need insurance the most are the ones most likely to purchase it. Many people with health problems are forced to remain employed because they are uninsurable without a job. Adverse selection drives up the cost of insurance for everyone, promoting a vicious cycle of increasing costs.
White collar professionals are beginning to fight back. United Professionals (or UP) is a relatively new membership group that is pushing for more workplace protection and benefits for white-collar professionals. They also provide services like legal assistance and job help. Eventually UP may offer group health insurance. Membership is only $54, but potential enrollees should know that UP is allied with major trade unions, although the group is not a union in itself.