“Hours of chaos” is how the New York Times described the work reality of more and more Americans. It highlighted Jannette Navarra, a Starbucks barrista, who is regularly forced to work part-time with fluctuating hours. She usually gets her work schedule three days ahead of the workweek, so she is always scrambling to arrange childcare for her son. Any hope Navarra has of advancing by pursuing a degree is shattered by her inability to schedule classes.
These sorts of lousy jobs are the increasing reality for many American workers. They are labeled “contingent” workers — part-time, temporary, on contract, on call. They generally earn lower wages than fulltime employees, with little or no benefits, and constant insecurity. They now represent one-third, perhaps as much as 40 percent of the workforce.
The Times focused on new technology that allows Starbucks to micro-manage worker hours to fit outlet demand. This really isn’t about technology, however. It’s about power. Workers have less power in the workplace in part because of continued high unemployment. When jobs are scarce, workers have learned to accept what they can get.
It’s is also due to the absence of a worker voice on the job because of the virtual disappearance of unions, particularly in the private sector.
No job is inherently marginal. Lousy jobs in places like non-union Phoenix are middle-class jobs in unionized New York City. Economist Robert Kuttner, writing in the American Prospect, described the very different reality of New York hotel workers, represented by the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. New York employers, faced with variable demand for rooms, would also want workers to be on-call. But as Kuttner notes, in this case workers have a union to speak up for them. Through tough negotiations the union has guaranteed workers regular hours, decent pay (a housekeeper gets roughly $50,000 a year), paid vacation, pension and health benefits