I am old enough to have started my work life in Minneapolis at a time when sexual harassment on the job was not a phrase, just an everyday nothing-you-can-do-about-it reality. Gender discrimination in hiring and wages were just how people did business. Racial discrimination was rampant in both the the workplace and in unions. Race and gender discrimination was illegal, (I’m not that old!) but our ability to litigate, as individuals or in class action suits were limited and small businesses were basically untouched.
In other words it was not the good old days. However, for the half-dozen crappy food service jobs I had in the 1970s and 80s, I always received a schedule – part or full time. Working more or fewer hours was offered as an opportunity to me, not a requirement. So when businesses large and small cry that they can not possibly survive if they give workers a regular schedule they can count on, they are counting on us having short-term memories.
In fact flexible scheduling is an “innovation” of the 1990s, an outgrowth of globalization, free trade, and the rise and reification of business education.
I remember one corporate winner-of-the-year I heard on the radio in the 90s use the analogy of a boat in the sea without allegiance to country or workforce, able to pick up and follow the cheapest labor source. Genius! These were the people that everyone who wanted to make a million overnight, sought to be like, They were the ones in the limelight.
I am also old enough to have started college at a time when there were no temples to business on University campuses overshadowing liberal arts, as they literally do on the University of Minnesota west bank campus. Inside those new buildings experts in the early 1990s with lots of letters after their names explained the joys of free trade — a happening post-cold-war innovation. The North American Free Trade Agreement, inaugurated on January 1 1994, would be the template for all global and local trade relations.
Until a band of indigenous farmers from Chiapas interrupted the celebration on the eve of the inauguration of NAFTA. The barely armed Zapatistas interrupted the party. They used the brand new internet to build solidarity across the globe. Ever since, workers and small-scale farmers have been crossing borders to fight the vagaries of so-called free trade and the boomerang dislocation of workers at home.
If you are a boss, no question, flexibility in scheduling and hiring and firing is good. Which is why it has been adopted by every kind of industry — from hospitals to universities, trucking to restaurants, warehousing to mining. And if you are a worker it sucks. There is no middle ground, just an ocean between the two. The only way workers can make it worth it to an employer to pay decent wages, provide decent schedules, and time off for sickness and family needs is when workers agitate and labor peace becomes a cheaper way to go.
In Minneapolis a coalition of groups including CTUL, NOC SEIU and the Minneapolis AFL-CIO and Fight for $15 have been organizing around the Working Families Agenda that includes living wages, regular scheduling, and sick time — conditions that allow us to care for children and elders, build lives and careers. Such across-the-board legislation would allow those businesses who want to do well by their employees, to thrive, evening out the playing field.
So when businesses in Minneapolis cry out that there is no way for them to survive without flexible scheduling — a little historical perspective is in order. As for city politicians trying to play both sides, there needs to be a moment of reckoning . Employers sitting in their flexibility boats are feeding workers to the sharks. Will you send us a lifeboat or not? The voters want to know.