Good People Don’t Get Good Jobs

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Good People Don’t Get Good Jobs

When Mary Grace Gainer anxiously told her master’s and doctoral advisors that she’d noticed want ads for college professors diminishing, they assured her, “Good people get good jobs.”

So she focused on being very, very good. She earned straight A’s. She presented papers at academic conferences, including at Princeton. She sweated over her instructional duties, earning rave reviews from her students. She served as an officer for academic organizations and helped plan educational events.

But then, to her horror, with $90,000 in student debt and a family to support, she discovered good people don’t always get good jobs. Against her will and her efforts, Gainer joined the world’s growing ranks of marginalized workers. They live precariously, without health insurance, without a living wage, without a schedule for duty, without a guarantee of work the next week or month. 

This mounting army of workers worries incessantly and survives only because of government and family assistance. CEOs and corporations gorge themselves on profits made on the suffering of workers trapped in this life of frightening instability called the precariat.

To reverse this dangerous trend, the International Trade Union Confederation created the World Day for Decent Work six years ago. On Oct. 7 this year, my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), as well as the IndustriALL Global Union, representing 50 million workers in 140 countries, and others around the world will demonstrate against this corporate scheme. 

Mary Grace Gainer will be among those protesting. When this woman with a PhD in English discovered in February that she was pregnant, she no longer had health insurance and was unsure where she would get her next paychecks, even after years of teaching full-time at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

IUP’s English Department had cut her classes, and thus her pay and benefits, to the point where her two children qualified for the state-subsidized child health insurance program. The university did the same to a dozen other professors who had hoped, like Gainer, to soon be on the tenure track. Her partner, a military veteran, had struggled to find work until ultimately he secured a job driving a school bus for $57 a day, but no benefits. Her wages dramatically reduced, Gainer could not afford health insurance for herself.

As a result, Gainer was living without stability, like millions of restaurant and retail workers around the country. The New York Times this year has repeatedly documented the plight of these workers.

They can’t arrange childcare because the corporations employing them don’t post schedules until the last minute. They’re late paying rent because these corporations order them to leave work early during slow periods, slashing wages. They go to work ill, even at restaurants, because the corporations refuse to provide paid sick time off. They can’t see a doctor anyway because the corporations keep them at just below the number of hours per week that would qualify them for health benefits.

Shoving workers into the precariat like this is the manifestation of corporate greed. That’s clear because some retailers and restaurants including Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Modell’s Sporting Goods stores in Manhattan make profits while treating workers fairly. In many of these cases, the workers are represented by unions that bargain for better conditions. That includes schedules posted weeks in advance, full-time work, vacation and sick pay and health insurance coverage.

Collective bargaining gives union workers more power to resist attempts by corporations to impose insecurity. Still, corporations like Rio Tinto try.

The world’s third-largest mining company demanded in 2012 that the 780 union workers at the Alma, Quebec, aluminum smelter allow Rio Tinto to replace retirees with new hires who would be denied membership in the USW, who would receive half pay, and who would get substandard benefits.  When the union refused, Rio Tinto locked the workers out. It took six months, but Rio Tinto finally backed off.

As individuals, workers would not win such a fight. Mary Grace Gainer knows that. And that’s why she supported the ultimately successful effort by Point Park University adjunct professors to be represented by the USW’s Adjunct Faculty Association.

When Gainer finished her PhD and taught full-time at IUP, she earned $55,000 a year, as well as full health and retirement benefits. She had to apply for this position every year, but after five consecutive full-time years, she could have sought a tenure track position, providing more job security. But IUP prevented Gainer and a dozen colleagues from getting that far.

Suddenly, in the summer of 2013, IUP’s English Department told them it would no longer assign them full teaching schedules. They would be replaced with students studying for advanced degrees.

Gainer then sought work as an adjunct professor at Point Park. Adjuncts are hired to teach a course or two, a semester at a time. Point Park told her it would pay $2,244 a semester for each class. With preparation and instruction time, grading, and meetings with students, adjuncts figure that’s less than minimum wage -- for workers with master’s and doctorate degrees. They get no benefits. They don’t know from semester to semester how many courses, or which courses, universities will assign them to teach.

While raising tuition at more than twice the rate of inflation, colleges and universities are subjecting more and more teachers to precarious lives. Now, three-quarters of university instructors are underpaid adjuncts.

Gainer feels university officials misled her about what would be possible if she got her PhD. “You do everything right and you think you are going to make it, and you don’t,” she said.

Pressing people into the precariat can’t continue, she said. “People are really, really hurting. People can’t live like this. I think it is going to collapse in some way. I see nurses and teachers and fast food workers going out on strike and unionizing. I hope we are on the track to taking the economy back somewhat from the mess it has become.”

Guy Standing, a professor at the University of London who has authored two books about precarious work, wrote recently that workers will rise up to oppose the economic forces condemning families to insecurity as they recognize “that their situation is not due to personal failings.”

Those who know it’s not their fault that good people don’t get good jobs will demonstrate on World Day for Decent Work. USW members employed at Rio Tinto facilities in Alma, Labrador and Utah, adjuncts like Gainer, workers in the precariat and their sympathizers worldwide will demand justice.  

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Mary G. Gainer is looking for a job around Indiana, Pa., that would enable her to use the writing and teaching skills she developed studying for her doctorate in English and take her family out of the precariat. Here is her professional information on LinkedIn.

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To join the IndustriAll Thunderclap against precarious work, click here.

Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation and the President's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee 2.0. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the executive committee for IndustriALL Global Labor federation and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger

There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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