Heather Gautney Congressional fellow serving in the Office of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
American culture is shaped by a strong work ethic and pioneer mentality, in which personal success is believed to hinge upon one’s level of tenacity. The high value we place on work and individual achievement accordingly shapes our social welfare system, in which programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security, and health care remain pegged to employment – and so-called “entitlements” are framed as something we must keep earning, rather than a benefit of membership in our society, or a fundamental human right.
Some Americans work to achieve status or self-actualization, but far too many toil simply to stay afloat and feed their families. With increasing numbers of well-paying, full-time jobs being outsourced or reorganized as part-time and contingent, more and more people are forced to work an extra shift, take a second job, and forego time off with their families. Add high rents, increased cost of living and education, stagnant wages and mobility, and the looming threat of unemployment to the mix and you have a truly egregious social problem: a working poor numbering over 10 million, and a much larger middle class without social safety nets – literally working itself to death.
Many European countries are known for their high standards of living, which this year spurred the World Bank to name the European Union a “lifestyle superpower.” European social systems can provide us with important insights in to how we might start to rethink our relationship to our work and our lives, and the political linkage between employment and social welfare in our society.
Despite the illusion that European workers lack ambition, countries with strong social welfare systems, like Germany and those in Scandinavia, boast high productivity among their workforces and admirable levels of business and technological innovation. In fact, “total employment” has become a mantra across E.U. governments, targeting their national welfare programs to keep people working and publically engaged. Childcare, maternity and paternity policies, for example, enable mothers to keep their jobs, while letting fathers spend more time with their children. Public schools far outnumber the private and exclusive, yet European students continue to dominate international rankings. Unemployment insurance and universal health care allow people to remain active in their society and economy, even when job markets destabilize. And since such benefits are largely universal, rather than job-dependent, normal downturns in a person’s life, like unemployment, sickness, or caring for an elderly family member, do not result in economic catastrophe and social isolation.
Ironically, workers in some of the most productive and educated countries in Europe also enjoy shorter working days, and copious amounts of vacation and leave time—seemingly opulent by U.S. standards. For example, Austria’s level of productivity has essentially paralleled that of the United States over the last couple of years, yet their workers are afforded markedly more time off the job. During the first year of employment, Austrians enjoy a full month of vacation time, plus 13 paid public holidays. After six years, they get 36 days of paid vacation, plus holidays, totaling more than two months off with pay, in addition to paid sick and family leave. In the United States, the average worker gets only 9 days of paid annual leave, and unfortunately, that number already includes sick time.
In 2007, the Project on Global Working Families conducted a workforce study, involving 180 countries. It found that 137 of them mandated paid annual leave, and 121 guaranteed two weeks or more leave time per year; the U.S. government, by contrast, does not require employers to provide paid leave. Worse, however, the study found that at least 134 countries fix the maximum length of the work week; while the United States does nothing to limit the work week or mandatory overtime. Twenty-eight of the countries in the study restrict or prohibit night work, and 50 of them have government-mandated evening and night wage premiums; the United States does not restrict or guarantee premiums for night work. Finally, at least 126 of the countries in the study require employers to provide a day of rest each week; the United States has no such guarantees – American workers can be made to work around the clock.
Europeans enjoy such benefits and protections because corporations are legally required to provide them. Not so in the United States. In fact, U.S. labor law primarily focuses on protecting citizens against unlawful discrimination, while working conditions and wages are largely secured through contracts. It should come as no surprise that workers who secure contracts though collective bargaining do remarkably better than their non-unionized counterparts. According to the Economic Policy Institute, union employees enjoy higher wages by almost 14 percent. They are 18 percent more likely to have health insurance, 22 percent more likely to have pension coverage, and 3 percent more likely to have paid leave. Not coincidentally, union coverage is much higher in Europe. Just under 18 percent of U.S. workers are covered by labor agreements, compared to two-thirds of workers across the European Union. In the Nordic regions, as well as Austria and the Netherlands, coverage rises to 90 percent or more.
At its best, a core ethic of unionism is the belief that people do better working for a common good, rather than trying to outdo each other in what’s become, for most of us, a veritable race to the bottom. Let’s extend our superpower aspirations to include collective well-being and universal safety nets, instead of buying into the false promise of competition and elitism that has the majority of us living to work, rather than working to live.