Interview: The Reich Stuff
Economics: Crime and Punishment
Environment: Beyond The Wedge
International: The End Of The Lucky Country
Safety: Tests Fail Tests
Politics: Labo(u)r Day
Human Rights: Arabian Lights
History: Labour's Titan
Review: Foxy Fiasco
Poetry: Then I Saw The Light
The Locker Room
What’s In a Name?
Let's Start A New Party
The Reich Stuff
Interview with Peter Lewis
You've written a lot about the future of work and how the challenge for nations like America is to position itself at the top of global economy - how does a mid-sized nation like Australia fit into this analysis?
Australia faces precisely the same challenge -- especially, the widening gap between the rich, the middle class, the working class, and the poor. In addition, unless adequate investments are made in human capital, basic research and development, and infrastructure, Australia (like the US) will be losing many of the good jobs of the future to China and India.
What are the competing visions of work in the year 2020 and what sort of decisions today will define the type of world we are in?
One view holds that we will all be "free agents" who will sell our skills on a kind of spot market. We'll have no job security, and won't be able to predict our earnings from week to week. If we're in high demand that week, we'll do well. If not, we'll do poorly. In other words, we'll all be day labourers or consultants. The other view holds that companies will invest in human and social capital -- those investments will define a company -- and that the best companies will have created teams that are able to continuously innovate, providing ever-improving products and processes, and tailoring them to specific customers' needs.
What role do unions have to play such a footloose, global labour market?
Ideally, unions would be the voice of workers who are seeking more stability and better wages and working conditions in a global economy that's anything but stable. In addition, unions can improve productivity by being a vehicle through which workers who are closest to technologies, production, or customers can express new ideas for how to improve products or processes.
Can - and indeed should - we attempt to stand in front of this change and slow or even halt it? Or should we be taking the other route and be active in the change and looking for the opportunities it offers our members?
It shouldn't be a choice between halting change or letting the free market rip. The question is how to manage change so that everyone benefits to the maximum extent. Unions can ease the way to changes by enabling working families to adapt to change, and get the most out of it.
So is there a future at all?
Of course. But we have to acknowledge that unions' roles and responsibilities will evolve, as our economies and societies evolve. Unions shouldn't be just another special interest, another political constituency. Our unions can and should be change agents - but change agents in the direction of widening the circle of prosperity, fostering upward mobility, and fighting for social justice.
To what extent should we be looking at local and regional rather than national labour markets - and how does this impact on the way issues like labour rights are approached?
Local and regional labour markets are important because most jobs are created in the local and regional "personal service" economy. I'm referring to retail, restaurant, hotel, hospital, tourist, transportation, elder care, child care, massage and physical therapy, and the like. but the national and international labour markets are critical for determining how much money comes into a local and regional economy.
Business and media advocates in Australia are pushing for an industrial framework more like America - what would be your warnings about this approach?
The American labour market is very "flexible," in the sense that employers can set almost all wages, and they can hire and fire at will. This helps the entire US economy stay flexible. But American employees themselves have very little flexibility. If they lose their jobs, and they're over 40 years old, they typically have difficulty finding new ones. If their skills become obsolete, they have a hard time gaining new ones. Unemployment insurance lasts only a relatively short time. As a result, the "dark" side of the much-flaunted flexible American labour market is job insecurity, sudden job loss, and sudden loss of income.
You had a robust relationship with unions as Labor secretary - how well have they adapted to this new world in America?
Some have done well. The service employees' union (SEIU) and hotel and restaurant employees (here) are growing. They're winning organizing drives. government employees are also gaining ground. But the older industrial unions are shrinking quickly.
As Labor secretary you took the first steps to moderating executive pay - but they have continued to balloon - should we leave these issues to the market?
Not unless executive pay is truly set in the market, and it's rarely set by market forces. Typically, a CEO chooses most of his board of directors, including those who set his pay. Shareholders have no voice. In addition, the "market" for ceos is highly imperfect. only a relatively few people are deemed qualified, because only a relatively few have become members of a still predominantly "old boys club" that approves them.
Currently debate in Australia about where a Social Democratic Party like the ALP should position itself with unions - your thoughts?
I wouldn't presume to tell Australians how to run their politics or their unions. In the United States, unions continue to be the 'ground troops' of the Democratic Party, although union membership has dwindled considerably over the years.
If the capital-labour paradigm has declined since end of the cold war, where do you see the new fault lines?
It's all about human capital - who gains what skills, who has what sort of connections. hence, education (including early childhood, good schools, and widespread access to excellent college or technical schools) is very important for building human capital. It's also about social capital (I call it 'relational capital') inside companies. Companies that treat their workers as assets to be developed do much better over the long term than do companies that treat their workers as costs to be cut.
There is an orthodox view that government is on the decline and that global markets are the real power houses - do you agree?
Yes, to some extent.
If so, how can individuals shape their future through politics as shareholders?
Governments can and should join with other nations to create large markets that can bargain with global capital about the terms and conditions of entry -- labour standards, for example. Europe has one such market. The United States has another.
Finally, how important is the outcome of the us presidential election to workers in the USA and even in countries like Australia?
Quite important. The Bush Administration has mounted a bullying foreign policy that I fear is pushing more and more of the world toward anti-Americanism, at the very time when the US needs to establish strong international policies and programs to block terrorists from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction. That same bullying is radicalising more and more of the Muslim world, and increasing recruits to the terrorist cause. I believe Kerry has a broader view of what must be done to fight terrorism. Kerry is an internationalist. Bush is an imperialist.
Bush has also allied himself with large corporations against the interests of American workers. Kerry believes in workers' rights. Kerry is not a protectionist, however. He understands the importance of maintaining and enlarging upon trade treaties and the central role global capital plays in our international economy. But Kerry would not be afraid to propose ways to ensure that trade and global capital worked for the benefit of everyone, not just the benefit of a few very rich people.
To book tickets for Robert Reich's Seymour Centre lecture call 02 9351 7940. Tickets $15 for current union members, $20 for non-members
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