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Full Employment for All 

by Bill McGaughey

   
"The advancing edge of productivity and the fixed structure of working hours, like the blades of a pair of scissors, are cutting people from their jobs.

Between 1950 and 1978, productivity in the private sector doubled, but the average work week in the labor force dropped by only 2.7 hours - from 41.7 hours in 1950 to 39. This drop, small as it is, reflects mainly the increased proportion of part-time workers in the work force.

By 'productivity', I mean workers' average output in one hour today compared with such output at a specific time in the past. A doubling of productivity would mean doubled annual output if the level of employment and average number of hours worked stayed the same. But, if the demand for a particular industry's output were not sufficient, then the increased productivity would cause loss of jobs or displacement of workers into other industries.

In 1926, Henry Ford introduced the five-day, 40-hour week. In 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act set a 40-hour week in many of our basic industries. Since then, working hours have been frozen. he time-and-a-half premium, originally meant to deter overtime work so that others could find employment, has failed in that purpose, as the cost of fringe benefits has increased relative to straight-time wages and paying the premium has become cheaper than hiring and training new employees.

For a time, the ill effects of that failure went unnoticed. 'Silent firing' took care of necessary reduction in employment. As much as possible, employers tried to avoid laying off superfluous employees. Instead, they thinned the ranks by abolishing positions that were vacated through employee turnover, retirement and promotions. That was thought to be a relatively humane way to handle the situation.

Unfortunately, a price had to be paid, and it was paid by the people who were starting a career. With the freeze on hiring, they faced a lack of job opportunities. Unemployment therefore became concentrated among groups of people entering the work force or breaking out of occupational 'ghettos' that had consigned them to low-level jobs: women, racial minorities, the young.

Politically, such disparities could not be tolerated. Economists argued, though, that the problem was mainly one of 'structural unemployment'. Many of these women, blacks and teenage job-seekers lacked the required skills and experience to handle the available jobs. So job-training programs were established. Programs to aid or retrain displaced workers and homemakers were created. After they had completed the training or retraining programs, many of the 'structurally unemployed' still could not find jobs. Therefore, the Government had to enlarge its role as employer of last resort, with programs funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1974 and accelerated expenditures for public works. In 1977, a Labor Department official estimated that the Government was spending $13 billion to $15 billion annually on jobs.

In the early 1960's, Federal manpower policy stressed economic expansion. Later, emphasis shifted from this theme and toward the idea of 'targeting' jobs to economically disadvantaged groups. Employers were given tax incentives to hire the chronically unemployed and other hard-to-place applicants. Affirmative-action programs were intended to help women and blacks assume their share of the jobs that became available at various levels of rank and pay. This approach generated a backlash among white males, who complained of 'reverse discrimination'. Moreover, it has failed to lower the proportion of black to white unemployment and to narrow the gap between men's and women's average earnings.

To target jobs to people because they belong to a socioeconomic or demographic group suggest that such persons cannot compete successfully for jobs on their own; it suggests that they are personally incapable of handling the work or need various kinds of remedial help.

That is not the problem.

Rather, it is that job opportunities became limited just when women, blacks, and young people planned to enter the work force or increased their level of expectations.

Representative John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, has introduced a bill that would reduce the standard work week to 35 hours over four years, require double-time wages for overtime, and prohibit employers from requiring overtime work.

Hearings on the bill were held in the House Education and Labor Committee late last month. This bill is a step toward honoring our national commitment to full employment, enacted one year ago in the Humphrey-Hawkins legislation."

(The New York Times, Tuesday, November 13, 1979, p. A23)

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