Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What Do the Data Mean?

On August 12, the Associated Press gave out world-shaking stories with the statistic on productivity of American workers. It rose 6.4%. Then they try to explain what that means. But what does it mean, really? I'm asking!

Productivity almost always goes up. Look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, You can get productivity changes, quarter by quarter, for decades back, and it almost always goes up. That is, the wealth created for every hour we’re on the job goes up. We keep on making more stuff, hour by hour.

There were two quarters in the disaster year, 2008, when productivity fell slightly, but the total of increases, adding quarter-by-quarter since 2007 comes out to 21.9%. It’s actually more than that, because each quarter’s figures are based on the growing previous quarter.

Productivity changes are calculated by dividing the wealth created by the number of hours worked. An increasing percentage could mean that more wealth was created, or it could mean that there were fewer hours worked. Today’s raging unemployment tells us that fewer hours caused the index to rise this quarter. Adding the quarterly changes for an approximation of the decrease in working hours since 2007 gives me a minus 33.2%. That’s not all layoffs; most of it is decreases in overtime, putting workers into part-time or temporary status, work done “off the clock” and other capitalist tricks.

Total output actually fell since 2007, but the productivity percentage went up mostly because fewer hours were recorded as worked.

Here’s how they explain it: It’s all good news. Productivity increases usually signal the bottom of a recession, they tell us. One article says, “Productivity can help boost living standards because it means companies can pay their workers more, with those wage increases financed by rising output.” Companies can pay their workers more? They can?

They probably can, but do they? Do employers increase wages every time they can? Or do they increase wages only when they have to, only when organized workers force it? UAW President Walter Reuther used to say that you could take everything that the bosses ever gave the workers of their own free will, wad it up, and put it into your eye, and you’d never even blink! So, yeah, they can give workers raises when productivity goes up. But they don’t.

Karl Marx explained why output per hour, productivity, keeps going up. It’s mostly because new equipment is constantly being added. New ways of organizing the work contributes, but that mostly happens after the new equipment is installed.

If what the Associated Press implies is true, and we really were going to get raises when productivity rises, then workers ought to welcome new equipment in their shops. But do we? Actually, every new “improvement” in the workplace, we’re well aware, means somebody is going out the door.

That raises even more questions for me. Why is it that we don’t demand a decrease in our working hours every time productivity goes up? Looking back over the decades, one can easily see that we could have kept on producing the wealth while eliminating weekend work completely and shaving off Fridays and maybe Thursdays. In fact, the old Congress of Industrial Organizations used to demand “30 for 40,” meaning that the work week should be lowered to 30 hours while we still receive 40 hours’ pay. That demand was in many union negotiations right up to 1957, then it seems to have disappeared from American labor history.

The Europeans managed to lower their hours a tad, but we didn’t.

Why don’t American unions try to lower working hours any more? It’s the answer to unemployment. It’s probably the only reasonable answer to unemployment. If we all reduced the hours we worked, then other people could get jobs.

What should have been enacted is a reduction in working hours based on increases in productivity. It would work just like Cost of Living Allowances (COLA), which allows for an increase in wages every time inflation rises. If we had reduced our hours as automation increased our productivity, we would never have lost our massive union membership. We’d still have 35% of the workforce in unions, as we did in the 1950s, instead of 12-13% as of now. If membership had been stable, we’d have maintained our political clout, and we wouldn’t be in these horrible messes.

Whose idea was it to drop “30 for 40?”

Another question that I have never figured out: When I first started doing factory work, I was not surprised that the number one kind of union grievances was called “overtime grievances.” What surprised me, though, was that my co-workers were not fighting for fewer work hours. They were fighting for more. The grievances, all of them, were caused when somebody felt that somebody else had unfairly received extra overtime hours.

Are we just crazy about working? Do we dislike our families, our hobbies, our leisure time? Do we really want to return to working slave hours from “can’t see” to “can’t see” every day? Do we have nothing else to do with our lives? Is our alienation so total that we don’t even think of ourselves as meriting the leisure to figure out what our lives are about and try to find fulfillment?

Do we believe the “good news” from the Associated Press about productivity? Are we so easy to fool?

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