Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) suddenly has a lot of something many American workers wish they had even a little bit of: bargaining power. He’s trying to leverage that power to gain job perks that many Americans don’t have – and in a manner that is entirely consistent with his party’s way of thinking about the economy.
Ryan isn’t really running for Speaker of the House right now. He’s negotiating for the job with his prospective employers, the House Republican caucus. Ryan isn’t the only candidate for that job, but he’s clearly the top choice of the largest number of caucus members, and he has made it plain that he needs the new gig a lot less than they need him to fill it.
Many House Republicans believe Ryan to be singularly equipped to unify the warring factions in their caucus, and to restore even a delicate peace to a party that just ran its last leader, Speaker John Boehner, out of town.
This gives Ryan a lot of power to demand things. He’s used it to demand more flexibility in his work schedule than past speakers – less travel and more time with his family – and more job security than Boehner – support from all the GOP factions and new rules making it harder to dispose him from the position.
Many Democrats (and activists) saw those demands and accused Ryan of hypocrisy, because he has opposed past bills in Congress that would mandate family leave for workers across the economy.
“Paul Ryan is rightly concerned about his job’s impact on his spouse and children," said Judy Conti, the federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, told Politico this week. "Yet [he] isn’t willing to guarantee that all workers... have the necessary tools to balance their work and family obligations."
Ryan isn't a hypocrite. He is just revealing a policy preference – and a very mainstream Republican one. That preference is to allow the free market to decide which workers get certain benefits, like job security and schedule flexibility, and which of them don’t.
In the American labor market today, many of those benefits are determined by workers’ bargaining power – either individually or as a group.
Detroit autoworkers, public school teachers and a variety of workers in other sectors band together in unions and bargain with their employers for higher pay and better benefits. The share of unionized employees is shrinking in the labor market, to historic lows, and so most employees are left to bargain on their own.
Anyone who’s ever interviewed for a job, or hired for one, knows how this works. The employer selects the applicant who best fits her needs for the position and makes an offer. The applicant either accepts the offer or counters, like Paul Ryan has, with demands. Negotiations ensue, or the employer pulls the offer and makes it to someone else.
What’s the best way for an applicant to win concessions in that negotiation? To possess skills that the employer believes are unique in the marketplace. That’s clearly what’s happening with Ryan – he’s able to request terms that others candidate could not.
In principle, that sounds like the sort of economic meritocracy that most Americans support. In practice, it’s not that simple. Changes in the American economy – particularly the outsourcing and automation of specialized blue-collar jobs – have wiped out the skill advantage for millions of workers. It’s hard to leverage your unique skills at the bargaining table if there suddenly aren’t many jobs that utilize your skills.
Meanwhile, some of the highest-paid CEOs in the country have managed to extract big bargaining concessions, particularly salaries and stock options, even with little evidence that their skills are uniquely advantageous to their companies. It’s one reason why top executive pay has soared while typical worker pay has stagnated.
Democrats increasingly view those trends as unjust to workers – and in need of government remedy. That’s why they’re pushing hard for mandatory family leave, a higher federal minimum wage and other policies meant to force employers to bestow more benefits on workers.
Republicans tend to oppose most of those efforts, though some of them are looking for ways to encourage employers to be more generous via tax breaks. Ryan, as a rule, does not like adding mandates to the labor market, and in this, his speakership demands are consistent. He’s not asking Republicans to guarantee more family time for all future leaders of the House – only for him.