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Kevin Drum’s Labor Contrarianism

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Very disappointing piece from Kevin Drum supporting Alan Haus’ call for unions that only negotiate wages and nothing else. Haus, an employment lawyer, is packaging old-school company unionism in new wrapping, calling for conservatives to be OK with highly paid workers so long as management controls everything else regarding work. He wants public-sector unionism destroyed and to strip collective bargaining law of everything not concerning wages. This kind of corporate hackery is not even worth my notice.

Far more disturbing is a major progressive writer, writing for Mother Jones for Christ’s sake, supporting this drivel. Is Drum just engaging in a Slate pitch joke here? I’d like to think so. Alas, no. His logic is basically, “well, unions are dying anyway so we have to try something.” And that something else is giving up a century of struggles to get theoretical power to bargain for wages. The problems with this are legion. A couple specific points:

1. Drum seems naive enough to believe that if unions were to give up all this power, corporations would then follow through and grant their workers higher wages. Is there any reason to believe corporations would bargain in good faith? No. Glad that leading liberal writers have a real deep understanding of how corporate power works in American politics here.

2. Unions are not exclusively, or even primarily, about wages. Wage rates are a piece of what they do. Unions also provide protection from getting fired without cause, push for workplace safety, give workers a voice in fighting sexual harassment, bargain for working hours, vacation time, sick leave, etc. Unions are working-class people’s leading voice in fighting for any number of pieces of progressive legislation. What’s worse is that Drum knows this, noting that the UMWA has done far more to fight for mine safety than any corporation or government agency. But I guess that’s worth just shrugging off!

3. Company unions are far from new in American history and they consistently have served to undermine worker rights, giving employees a facade of a voice on their job while allowing corporations to consolidate control over the workplace and maximize profit. Haus calls for, without directly using the term, the return of company unions, allowing corporations to set everything outside of wage rates. How can anyone who cares for worker rights think this is a good idea?

4. The title itself gets to the laughability of this whole notion–“Can Unions Be Saved By Making Them Weaker?” Well, maybe African-Americans should give back the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make the movement stronger again! No doubt it would work!!! And I’m sure that repealing Roe would sure put a spark in the pro-choice movement!

Does Drum remain worth reading on labor issues if he continues parroting conservative writers? I think not. Sadly, he spreads these anti-union ideas in a publication named for one of America’s true labor radicals, who no doubt is not only spinning in her grave, but in classic Mary Jones fashion, is cursing a blue streak at Drum.

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  • That post was almost Yglesias-esque. But Drum could actually change his mind or followup so all is not lost.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Both Drum and Yglesias supported the Iraq War, too.

      And I don’t think the relationship is entirely accidental. Both flow from a default assumption that those in power–whether the foreign policy establishment in the case of Iraq or employers in the case of these labor issues–deserve to be in power and that those who challenge them are presumptively in the wrong.

      • I think it is more simple than that. These guys are bloggers and their expertise do not flow from necessarily any particular training. They are just opinion generators. This being said, I think the issue here is the lack of thought/research about unions from KD, and he could either learn more about it, or cite some other sources instead of just saying “here’s my reaction” which doesn’t even really seem to rise to the level of an opinion. It seems like improv at this point on this topic.

        • L2P

          I agree. Drum has never been in a union or done union work. He literally doesn’t understand that there’s no difference between “compensation” and “other issues” in labor contracts. Those of us that deal with that stuff know that if the “other issues” aren’t addressed, then management just uses them to depress compensation.

          Unlike Yglesias, though, he’ll figure that out eventually.

          • sparks

            Drum, Yglesias, and the egregious Ezra have been three of the least politically impressive writers to have come from the early “left” blogosphere. Also the quickest to get their paid sinecures for being the “reasonable” (i.e. tamed) left. I think there’s a lesson to be had from this.

            The only reason Drum has been more malleable is IMO due to his move to Mother Jones from Washington Monthly. If he’d gone to the Atlantic, he’d write much as he did on his old blog, and have cookoffs with Megan McArdle.

  • Did K-Drum get infected with the Mickey Kaus virus? I knew K-Drum was a neo-liberal, but this piece is a bridge too far.

  • c u n d gulag

    Drum lost me a long, long time ago.
    With this, he’s getting into McArdle’s realm.

    I’m surprised he’s not advocating for a handful of nation-wide unions, you know, like the USSR once had, and the PRC still has.

    Sure, everyone there belonged to a ‘union.’ But they were powerless to change anything, since they were State-sponsored unions.

    “HUZZAH for our beautiful State-sponsored unions!”

  • Sorry, Erik, but Drum is and has been consistent on this. (It’s one of the reasons many of us laugh when he is presented as a “liberal” voice.)

    It’s Mother Jones’s editorial/hiring practices that should be questioned. Not as if the man doesn’t have a phosphor trail going back to Calpundit days.

    • indeed

      I still remember when he complained about the NYC transit strike–he thought they shouldn’t be striking because they earned the princely salary of $50000. (In NYC.) Yeah I’d say labor’s a blind spot with Drum.

      That said, I think he’s the only ‘major’ blogger concerned about energy and peak oil, so he should maybe stick to that.

  • Marc

    Come on; this is an obvious misreading of what he said. Here are the last two paragraphs of his post:

    “Beyond this, there are obvious problems with wage-only unions. I’ve long supported organized labor because it’s the only large-scale countervailing power that promotes the economic interests of the middle class against the interests of the corporate community. At the same time, I’ve long recognized that telephone-book size contracts stuffed with endless picayune work rules are genuinely corrosive. But where do you draw the line? I agree that unions would be far more acceptable to management, and far more useful to their members, if they spent less time fighting for rigid job classifications and money-wasting featherbedding clauses. But what about safety regs? I’d love to think that we could just trust MSHA to enforce safe practices in coal mines, but that would be naive. It’s the UMW that’s been mostly responsible for progress on that front.

    Still, this is an interesting suggestion. Whatever you think of them, unions in their existing form are dying, and there’s little reason to think that’s going to change. I acknowledged this when I wrote about unions earlier this year (“Why Screwing Unions Screws the Entire Middle Class”) and argued that we needed something to replace them, “a countervailing power as big, crude, and uncompromising as organized labor used to be.” Haus’s proposal won’t be adopted anytime soon, but at least it’s a useful idea: a new union movement that trades a bit of power in one area (work rules) for more power in another (much greater density in the private sector). It’s something to think about”

    Unions have both positive and negative impacts; the question that he’s thinking about is whether there is a way to keep more of the good and less of the bad. It’s just not OK to skip directly over what someone explicitly writes and to create a strawman version that you can attack.

    • What are you talking about–I specifically addressed these paragraphs in what I wrote.

      What is this “bad” that needs to be given away?

      • Marc

        The clerical workers union at a university where I worked had rules where people already in the system had first rights to new jobs (including research positions) unless the person posting them could document a reason why an outside person needed to be hired. This created a lot of grief and the need to cook up artificial job descriptions (need a biologist with expertise in fruit flies, with an art background, who speaks French..) It’s a small example, to be sure, but I’ve also had friends frustrated with rules imposed by teachers unions as well. (They tend to strongly support these unions as members, but still find some of the restrictions artificial and aggravating.)

        I think that Drum is incorrect on this subject, but there is a real tension between traditional labor rules and the ability of companies to respond quickly to changes. It’s not all just funneling money to the wealthy.

        • L2P

          Do you know why those sorts of rules are there?

          In the public sector in particular, what tends to happen is that when new management comes in they bring in a bunch of cronies and immediately give them jobs at the top of the pay scale. There’s usually no objective reason why Crony A is better for the job then Already Existing Worker B except that Crony A is, well, a crony. This happens repeatedly when the new management comes in. What results, over a period of years, is that the Already Existing Workers never get promoted because a series of Cronies are sucking up the higher grade jobs.

          Now look at your example. You’re talking about biologists and crap. They ARE NOT members of clerical unions and aren’t worried about getting bumped out of the PA3 slot for the next 5 years, so I’m going to call bullshit on that. I’ve never heard of a union rule stopping a university from hiring a professor.

          But think about a secretary who’s got maybe 2 or 3 chances in her career to get an administrative assistant job. Do you begin to see why it’s worth fighting to get priority over some flunkie the next dean’s going to want?

          There’s a similar story for EVERY ONE of the workplace rules the unions fight for.

          • djw

            Well put. Such rules are also helpful in reducing age discrimination.

            The trade-off between efficiency (or other ‘management prerogatives’ masquerading as efficiency) and fairness is real, and the details of how it should be managed is a perfectly reasonable thing to negotiate. (At the University staff union with which I’m most familiar, a variety of jobs are exempt from that rule because of their specialized nature). But Marc’s comment here doesn’t seem to recognize any tradeoff at all; he merely observes the inconveniences associated with existing rules as if they’re nothing but and inconveniences.

          • Marc

            And, at the same time, it can lead to counterproductive results if you actually need skills that the current employees don’t have. Unqualified cronies can come from within the system as well as outside of it, after all. You’re correct that a lot are in response to abuses; but I was asked for (and gave) a specific example in my experience where they were actually counterproductive.

            • djw

              And, at the same time, it can lead to counterproductive results if you actually need skills that the current employees don’t have.

              Yes, but this is a class of ‘general rules apply to specific cases poorly’ which is a universal problem that has little to do with unions in particular.

              Is it your position rules unilaterally imposed by management will do a better job of balancing competing goals like fairness and efficiency better than rules crafted through negotiation between labor and management? If not, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here.

            • jefft452

              “And, at the same time, it can lead to counterproductive results if you actually need skills that the current employees don’t have.”

              From your original post

              “…unless the person posting them could document a reason why an outside person needed to be hired”

            • DrDick

              If you need skills that current employees do not have, then the rule is not a problem, as you can specify that those skills are required. It sounds to me as though someone either wanted to hire a buddy from somewhere else (that whole cronyism thing) or else did not personally like the people in-house who were qualified for the job.

          • I’ll offer another anecdote point. And it’s hearsay as well!

            What other academic staff are complaining about right now is that “new” RA positions must be advertised internally for displaced workers even if the position is only nominally new, i.e., it’s a new grant that’s continuing and old project for which there are already people in place who would then be made redundant if the “new” jobs went elsewhere. (And, obviously, it’s fairly disruptive to most projects to have to replace their staff midstream because of, essentially, an accounting oddity). People are annoyed at having to craft the advert so as to give good odds that the existing person won’t lose their job.

            (I don’t think this is quite the same as filling high level positions with cronies, is it? I believe the positions are only made available to currently displaced staff…but I’m not sure.)

            Is this good or bad? I dunno. Obviously you can cook up circumstances where it’s ridiculous either way. I don’t know the exact reasoning behind the rules…

            The part I find odd about it is the fact that it introduces new displaced workers as well as disrupting teams (which can be an “efficiency” issue (getting the new person up to speed) or it could be a team morale issue…I’d be freaked if my contract renewal could die that way). I’ll note that a related complain was keeping continuity of employment which, for a variety of reasons esp. pension, is really important.

            • mds

              Your anecdotal point would carry a little more force if there were any indication that the rule in question was put in place by union negotiations. The university I work at had the same internal advertisement requirement for a position equivalent to mine, which isn’t a unionized one. It’s a policy imposed by Human Resources to make sure that they retain their heavy-handed, utterly uninformed control over hiring decisions regardless of funding source. Now, if your local RA union was responsible for the policy at your location, that obviously has unfortunate consequences. But “strong candidate identified” is usually allowed, especially for an existing occupant. Or are your local unions actually forcing the hiring of someone else, too? If the existing RA is a member of the union, this seems actively counterproductive. (On the other hand: an all-powerful research associates’ union? Where do I sign up?)

              • I didn’t intend for it to have much force. I agree that it’s probably an internal HR rule BUT (anecdote 2!) I do know of another RA who fought (with union support, i.e., went to a tribunal) for internal reassignment quite successfully, so I think there’s *some* connection (and yay for my union if so and they did it! — I’m actually not sure about how the RAs relate to the lecturer’s union…) My impression from talking with that guy is that it is at least partially a union move (or maybe a general labor law thing; in essence, if you are put on grant after grant then at some point you should have similar protections to people with more stably funded positions…a point I endorse wholeheartedly).

                As I say, the complaints are all anecdotal and from the people hiring. It could be an HR thing entirely.

          • Marek

            Exactly right, thank you. People don’t bargain these work rules (usually giving up some more material compensation) because they’re dumb or obstinate.

    • Come on; this is an obvious misreading of what he said. Here are the last two paragraphs of his post:

      You quote two paragraphs that don’t redeem anything. So: Drum doesn’t get it, you don’t get it.

  • Fuck that pente-ante, contrarian noise! If anything, unions should be working for better striking strategies, tactics, and logistics to keep members above the water-line while not working.

    The SEIU is doing its best to help health care workers get health insurance. It’s a really crappy situation to be a caregiver who isn’t insured his/herself. I’ve met a lot of ambulance and disabled lift drivers who are training to be medics just so they can get health insurance.

    It’s rotten, to the core the deal that people who do necessary and noble work (and are skilled whether that is recognized or not) are getting, while CEOS make sums sufficient to buy football teams. It has a negative impact on the people these workers serve, the cost of health care; and the well being of all caregivers, emergency personnel, and medical professionals.

    Basta! It’s time to stop being so damned timid. We can’t all be replaced by someone on a phone in a developing country where royal families will sell off the young and poor for the right bribes.

    • dangermouse

      I’ve met a lot of ambulance and disabled lift drivers who are training to be medics just so they can get health insurance.

      You should let them know that thanks to the health care law we’ll all totally have health care in 2014 so there’s nothing to worry about.

      • I really don’t see how being facetious helps matters. The best friend I’ve ever had relies on health insurance to survive, and we are doing all we can to help him stay covered until 2014 and until people start giving money for scholarships again so he can finish his bachelor’s degree, and perhaps get a job.

        • Walt

          Being facetious always helps matters.

          • Bill Murray

            but not as much as snark

        • And the health care reform act is already providing states with more money for home-care so that my friend and many of the clients I have worked for (who are still alive) may be less likely to see cuts in the services they get now.

          Just because the reform doesn’t have an impact on you right now, doesn’t mean that it is without merit and/or is undeserving of praise and support.

  • Linnaeus

    Yeah, I was a little disappointed by this. Not as much as I might have otherwise been, because I think Drum’s post stems more from lack of understanding of unions than suspicion or hostility. He throws out the well-worn “work rules” canard with seemingly little understanding of the context in which work rules in CBAs are developed. “Work rules” are one of those things that are easy to demonize because you never hear about them when they do what they’re supposed to do.

    Case in point: at my old workplace, there were rules in the CBA regarding the classification of workers. This is significant because a few years back, the employer had a group of workers doing the same work as one of those classes enumerated in the CBA, but classified them as something else, and hence denying that those workers were covered by the CBA (which meant, among other things, they got paid less). That would be the kind of thing that unions wouldn’t be able to contest under this “union-lite” idea.

    • Hogan

      “Good news, everyone! Full-time employees are getting a 5% wage increase! Oh, by the way, you’re all part-time now.”

  • JB

    Drum’s post was hardly a ringing endorsement. He raises the objections that you note also. Seemed like a wishy-washy “maybe we should think about this” post.

    • We should think about it–think about how to push back against these ideas. As for thinking about this as a serious proposal, no.

  • One reason I let my subscription to Mother Jones expire. They print this kind of stuff all the time seemingly completely ignorant about who or what their name sake was or did.

    Sad really. In fact I’d blame the publishers rather than Drum. We know what Drum is and has been and it isn’t liberal by any streach or the imagination. Why do they pay his for this kind of dreck?

  • Anonymous

    We should think about it–think about how to push back against these ideas. As for thinking about this as a serious proposal, no.

    Why not? So far, I think you’ve mainly attacked a strawman. The fundamental question that Drum is posing is: If there was a legally-protected/sanctioned form of unions that controlled fewer aspects of the workplace, would there be more of them and would this increase in unionization increase the overall welfare of the middle-class?

    Claiming that Drum is shrugging off worker safety is just silly, since he specifically is suggesting that that should not be abrogated.

    • wengler

      I understand what you are saying, but I think it is pretend-time to believe that getting a ‘union-lite’ would be any easier than a real union, unless it is as Loomis said above a company-sponsored union.

      You say to Wal-Mart you want this and they do what? Shrug their shoulders and say ‘Fine. Do whatever.’? Nope. They spend the same tens of thousands of dollars blocking the union and tell anyone who works for them that if they vote yes to unionize that their store is shutting down.

      • Kurzleg

        Exactly. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have corporate execs, etc. funding efforts to implement right-to-work laws throughout the nation.

    • Linnaeus

      Claiming that Drum is shrugging off worker safety is just silly, since he specifically is suggesting that that should not be abrogated.

      Fair enough, but if Drum wants to pursue this as a serious idea, then I think it’s incumbent upon him to better elucidate how it should not be abrogated since the same procedures that unions use to protect worker safety are the same ones that produce the much-maligned work rules. Maybe he will do that in a subsequent post.

  • I don’t have any particular opinions about this proposal, but given the sharp decline in organized labor it the last few decades it would seem that some outside the box thinking is necessary. Entrenchment has not proved very effective so far, and I’m not sure why anyone thinks that this is going to change.

    • Bill Murray

      Is it really outside the box to promote policies that were tried and didn’t work very well in the past?

      • Like I said, I don’t know much about this proposal… I’m perfectly willing to accept that it’s a terrible idea… however I don’t think it’s fair to condemn Drum for daring to discuss it.

        • I agree.

        • Marek

          I think it’s entirely fair to condemn ill-informed seat-of-the-pants scribblings, particularly if they are presented in a serious forum.

  • Jason

    Even setting aside that it is obviously unfair to cast Drum as “parroting” an idea that he expresses major reservations about (and which he is attracted to for reasons quite different from those of the original author of the idea), it’s a big mistake to dismiss him as not “worth reading on labor issues” because of this post.

    Drum’s Silicon-Valley-ish inclination to ‘think outside the box’ sometimes yields fruit, and sometimes doesn’t, as in the case of this post. But he is undeniably hugely pro-union; their value and importance are a central theme of his writing and have been for years. In his phlegmatic way, he can be one of labor’s more compelling and insightful defenders.

    It’s important to know your real enemies and real friends. Progressives should be better at it than we are.

    • “But he is undeniably hugely pro-union; their value and importance are a central theme of his writing and have been for years.”

      While some have provided evidence as to why this isn’t true, we’ll leave that aside for now. Assuming you are right, this is precisely why this nonsense is so disappointing. A “compelling and insightful defender” of labor doesn’t give credence to the idea that unions should give up most of what they’ve gained over the last century in order to maybe have more bargaining power over wages.

      • A “compelling and insightful defender” of labor doesn’t give credence to the idea that unions should give up most of what they’ve gained…

        What about workers in industries that have that have failed to organize under traditional methods? Is it all about a holding action to preserve the power of existing unions?

        • wengler

          Again, I fail to see how organizing a union that has substantially less power would be easier than organizing one that has more.

          The company would say “Look at them. They are organizing to get higher pay. All of which will be stolen from you in union dues. It’s a scam.”

          • Uhm, I fail to see why it wouldn’t be easier. You asking for less power and thus less likely to be opposed.

            • Kurzleg

              That’s assuming that employers have any interest in compromise. The evidence from the 2010 elections is that they’re backing candidates who have every intention of trying to eliminating the bargaining power of unions completely. The public unions were just the first step. Now, they may be finding out that it’s not as easy or as popular as they envisioned it would be. I wasn’t in Ohio, certainly. But that’s been their goal all along.

              • Linnaeus

                I think a lot of progressive people who aren’t familiar with union organizing campaigns would be quite surprised at just how ferociously employers will oppose them.

            • Linnaeus

              The union-lite form may make it easier to organize certain sectors, but I don’t think it’s safe to assume that it necessarily will.

              First, the management of some companies will simply not abide any increase in worker power at all, either on the grounds that the short-term costs of wage increases are too high or, in the long-term, that even a stripped-down union is a threat because once workers get in their heads the idea that can negotiate with employers over wages, they’ll try to expand the scope of subsequent CBAs

              Second, it might be easier to get workers on board with this idea, especially if they’re ambivalent about a union. By the same token, though, it might be harder because workers might figure that the gains to be made with a union-lite aren’t sufficient. Plus, as wengler points out, employers are not averse to using divide-and-conquer tactics to exacerbate these doubts.

        • I reported on a story a few months ago about UFCW creating a sort of employees association at Wal-Mart as a first step into entering a workplace they have been unable to unionize. There is some possibility in something like this. Unions do need to think out of the box for tough industries. But giving back everything they’ve fought over for a century is not thinking out of the box, it’s capitulation.

          • Jason

            But Drum was endorsing (and then only tentatively) precisely an idea along these lines, not advocating that unions give back everything they have fought over for a century. So your initial post was entirely misdirected.

      • Jason

        A “compelling and insightful defender” of labor doesn’t give credence to the idea that unions should give up most of what they’ve gained over the last century in order to maybe have more bargaining power over wages.

        But he specifically doesn’t endorse this. He envisions two kinds of unions, with the existing ones going on as they are. His attraction to the idea of ‘wage-only’ unions is the thought that they might be easier to organize in economic sectors that have proven successful in resisting unionization as things stand. I have no wish to defend this idea. But it is what it is, not what you say it is.

        Some have provided evidence as to why [Drum isn’t pro-labor]

        No such evidence has been given in this thread. Just instances of the same old “I stopped reading Yglesias when I realized he was an inhuman monster because of his one post on blah-blah” attitude that has been one of the less happy features of the culture of the left blogosphere since time immemorial.

        On the other side of the coin, you might read Drum’s article, “Why Screwing Unions Screws the Middle Class”, linked to, puzzlingly, in the very post in which he reveals his Pinkertonian tendencies.

        • wengler

          You already have two classes of unions. Or better said two-tier unions. The new younger members get a lot worse pay, health benefits, and a 401k instead of guaranteed benefits plan. If you want to look at why union membership is declining, older workers siding with management schemes to screw younger workers sure ain’t helping.

        • L2P

          People who support unions don’t offer support for projects that, on the face of it, appear ridiculously harmful to unions without doing more research. Any of that research would have shown Drum that there is literally no point to a “compensation-only” union. That makes any pro-union guy question his bona fides.

          We can still be friends and tell him that he’s missed the boat on this one. It’s not like he’s Yglesias, who never learns bout nothing.

        • John

          Yglesias is an inhuman monster. Drum is better than that (although also more boring, unfortunately), and this seems like an unfair gloss on what he said, which is much more measured and ambivalent than Erik suggests.

  • As the contract enforcement officer for my union chapter, I can only shake my head in disbelief. You are absolutely right, Erik. Your first point, by itself, wins the argument.

    I continue to be amazed at how many people who claim to be committed to democracy think the workplace should be an arbitrary dictatorship, all in the name of “flexibility.” Those clerical work rules might be inconvenient, but they protect office workers from arbitrary and capricious power.

    • This. Most Americans have never experienced democracy in action— not at home, not in personal relationships, not at school, not at work. In fact, after spending many years living in and being a leader in democratically operated student housing coops, I know that a lot of Americans consider direct democracy to be either communist and subversive, or too much work to bother with.

      Sigh.

    • DrDick

      Agreed. I am a proud fourth generation union man and it was other aspects of workplace conditions (hours, holidays, safety, etc.) that were at the heart of much unionization in the beginning and remain central concerns today. Low wages are hardly the only troubling issues facing Walmart employees.

  • Jim Lynch

    You can take the boy out of Orange county, but you can never take Orange county out of the boy.

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  • Walt

    I thought Drum was an odd choice for Mother Jones — he was a much more natural fit for Washington Monthly. I’ve read him for a long time — since the Calpundit days — but he always struck me as the right-ward limit of acceptable opinion, rather than as a major progressive blogger.

    • Ed

      Yes, Drum has always to “contrarianism.” This is no surprise coming from him.

      • Ed

        That should read “inclined to contrarianism.”

    • sparks

      This is why he gets the paid gigs, and will continue to. He disdains working people which is a sure road to success as a political/economic writer.

  • yeah. since when was drum a major progressive? mother jones mag or not, he was never more than a village-idiot wannabe.

  • wengler

    I read through these comments and realized that it might make a lot more sense to make a union based on everything but pay. So much of what a corporation that Wal-Mart does to make their workers miserable is not based on pay(though that is bad too). The terrible hours, the not quite part-time but not quite full-time, the expectation of work off the clock, and the lack of worker safety rules.

    People can be petty in any situation and be happy that they are getting a quarter more an hour than someone they don’t like that does the same job, but generally everyone from the boss snitch to the model worker to the average stock guy has to work in the same environment.

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