My best beloved reads the Economist every week, and occasionally I’ll read an article or two as well. She’s noted to me that periodicals like the Economist, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal are written for people with an interest in the proliferation of money. As such they’re (historically) neither right-wing nor left-wing. Save for the elephant in the room, of course.

I was rereading a column from last June from the Economist’s ‘Bartleby Blog’. On the web site, this blog is subtitled ‘Thoughts on management and the world of work, in the spirit of the “scrivener” of Herman Melville’s 1853 novel’. This alone is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Bartleby the Scrivener is a short story, not a novel.
  • The titular character of Bartleby the Scrivener would rather starve than work. His catch phrase is ‘I would prefer not to.’ He utters this phrase whenever his boss or others ask him to do something.
  • It seems that whoever named the blog took note of Bartleby’s initial burst of hard work, not the fact that by the end of the story, he’s been evicted, arrested, and starves in the Tombs, Manhattan’s municipal jail.

With all of this in mind, I point you to the June 29th edition of the blog in which the writer discusses the differences between American and European working hours and vacation habits.

First point: In 1979, the average worker in the US and Europe put in about 38.2 hours per week. Later measurements diverge. By 2000, the US worker was putting in 39.4 hours. This fell to 38.6 hours in 2016.

Second point: European and US workers differ in the amount of holiday they take. Rather than looking at the number of days off each culture has, the blogger points out that over the course of a year, Americans average 34 hours per week, the French 28 hours and the Germans 26.

Third point: The wealthy in the US work longer hours, but still tend to work in daylight as opposed to cleaners and food delivery people who mostly work at night.

Why the differences? Taxation? Possibly. But the key point is made in the passive voice: ‘Another potential explanation is that a decline in trade union membership has weakened American workers’ bargaining power. Except that unionization rates in France and America are not far apart.’

Let’s take a look at that for a moment: What happened to the unions in the US shortly after the 1979 calculation? I’d point to Ronald Reagan’s firing of almost the entire membership of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization rather than bargaining in good faith, given that he had supported the union during his campaign. This act alone signaled the death knell for unions in the United States.

The blogger distinguishes between unionization and policy. What isn’t spoken is how a well unionized country affects policy. Employers in underunionized countries also affect policy. Far more now than they used to. In the US, legislators financed by large employers have succeeded in gutting union power in a variety of areas. And they also succeed in breaking labor laws that protect the rights to unionize. So the question of who shapes policy goes unanswered.

I can’t speak for unionization rates in France, but labor in general speaks louder in Western Europe. Mandated holiday time of at least 20 days per year as a matter of national policy in most EU countries makes a big difference in that average number of hours worked.

Continuing through the blog, we get an assertion that ‘champions of workers’ rights have focused on raising the minimum wage (so far to little avail at the federal level)’. Again, begging the question as to WHY these efforts fail at the federal level. Might it have something to do with who is financing those who set the policy? I have a feeling that it might.

The writer then discusses the longer hours worked by the higher paid than the lower paid in the US. And this class of people discussed: cleaners and food delivery workers? Take a wild guess as to the areas of employment that are the least stable from the employee perspective? And which have unionization efforts stymied by both legal and illegal measures almost before such efforts have begun? Yeah, that would be those classes. It’s not that unionization rates have dropped simply through attrition or that the US minimum wage has stagnated through some kind of Adam Smithian invisible hand of the market. Those with money have made it higher to increase either one to the point of impossibility.