Who's getting ahead in today's workplace?
The answer might surprise you
BY ANNE ECKMAN & JORDAN GREEN
Southern workers are in a crisis. Real wages have stagnated, and workers have become all too familiar with the trend of downsizing. Secure jobs with good wages and benefits are now being filled by an expanding contingent labor force that has little hope for advancement and faces major legal barriers to forming unions and gaining other rights on the job.
The changing face of the workforce -- the entry of those once excluded from these occupations, such as women and people of color as well as new immigrants -- has contributed to rising tensions as well as unprecedented solidarity across the lines of gender and race.
In the face of this tremendous change in the region's workplaces, several myths have taken hold that blame certain people, especially women and blacks, for these dislocations.
To better understand what the mix of changing jobs and diversity means for southern workers, the Institute for Southern Studies, in Durham, N.C., conducted a study of workplace equity in the region. It looked at where the jobs are, who is working them, and the impact of job and workforce changes on the people in this region.
Using the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) data in "Job Patterns for Minorities and Women in Private Industry" -- which tracks the participation and distribution of different workers in nine occupational categories -- the Institute calculated profiles of each southern state, and the South as a whole for 1975, 1985 and 1994, the latest EEOC data. An analysis of that data appeared in the latest issue of Southern Exposure, the Institute's publication.
These detailed profiles challenge four prevalent myths about jobs, race and affirmative action in the South today. The Institute's findings, often overlooked in debates about job fairness in the 1990s, are crucial to understanding the impact of the changing economy on Southern jobs and southern workers.
Taken together, the findings show what Southern workers already know: Better jobs are more scarce for all workers and all workers face significant job insecurity.
The findings also reveal that, far from being the cause of white men's loss of better jobs, women and people of color remain concentrated in many of the lowest-paid, most insecure occupations.
Workers of all racial backgrounds have suffered from displacement and the resulting loss of income and benefits.
The relatively new experience of displacement for white workers has fed the myth that unqualified minorities are taking white workers' jobs.
But EEOC data show that workers' increased job insecurity is not the result of job losses to "other" workers but rather the effect of larger structural changes in the workplace.
Far from demonstrating a trend of white men being displaced by women and people of color, white men are holding onto the best jobs better than anyone else.
Workers of color, whose jobs were previously even less secure than their white counterparts, have experienced more severe downward losses of good jobs and benefits.
Nobody in the workforce has benefited from the trend toward less secure, less desirable jobs.
The real beneficiaries are the companies and corporations. Record increases in productivity and profits have been fueled by an increasingly globalized economy where companies are free to move jobs where labor is cheap and to replace full-time workers with a disposable workforce.
The South's loss of manufacturing jobs and increasing number of sales and service jobs directly reflects these larger trends. Many Southern jobs in labor-intensive industries that can easily be relocated have been the most vulnerable to the effects of NAFTA, which has sent many jobs across the border to Mexico where laborers make a fraction of the wages of their American counterparts.
NAFTA-related layoffs have also hit rural areas especially hard. Companies that had moved from urban to rural areas for low-wage labor are now heading further South; 40 percent of the workers who have lost jobs due to NAFTA live in rural areas although the rural population makes up only 21 percent of the U.S. population.
The Southern manufacturing jobs that have remained have also become less secure and safe. These jobs are increasingly vulnerable to the trend of replacing full-time jobs with contingent labor positions. Those remaining after downsizing are especially compromising to workers' safety and health.
The current growth in sales and service jobs promises little better for Southern workers. These jobs -- where the South outpaces the rest of the nation -- are not only lower-wage positions, but are also less secure. About 30 percent of jobs in the sales and service sector are part-time.
Finally, of the 1.2 billion new jobs created nationally in 1995, 20 percent are temporary. Companies compromise worker security with the use of temporary workers, who are generally less-trained, less compensated and less able to bargain collectively. Companies actively downsizing have made record profits. Stock shares jump when companies announce layoffs, and CEOs who have presided over worker layoffs, downsizing and outsourcing to temp agencies have been rewarded with growing salaries and compensation.
This occurs at the same time that, according to The Wall Street Journal, the earnings of the average American CEO is 212 times the earnings of the average American worker, and the Federal Reserve Bank reports that the richest 10 percent of the population owns 72 percent of the wealth in the United States.
For Southern workers, the bottom line is clear: to achieve an equitable workplace, we need to see the increasingly widespread economic insecurity for what it is -- the result of an attack on workers' earnings and negotiating power, not the result of affirmative action or "set aside" programs.
There are two possible responses to the hurt and frustration that hard economic times bring. One is resentment against female and black workers who have long struggled for economic survival in the South and against Latino and Asian American immigrants who have come here in search of a livelihood.
This would be a tragic mistake that would result in a weakened bargaining position, weakened job security and weakened health and safety protections for all workers.
The other response is for workers to organize together against the conditions that stand in the way of decent, dignified work with fair wages in a sustainable economy. This involves the process of developing a widespread strategy to hold corporations accountable to the needs of working people, their families and their communities.
The challenge for all workers is to turn shared insecurity into the basis for an alliance across race, class and gender lines that can envision -- and fight for -- better jobs and an economy that provides a living wage for all Southerners.
For a copy of the report "Dislocation and Workforce Equity; The South at Work in the 1990s," send $5 per copy to: Institute for Southern Studies, PO Box 531, Durham, NC 27702. To subscribe to Southern Exposure, send $24 to the same address.
POINT thanks the Institute for conducting the report and Southern Exposure for letting us excerpt their work here.