Michael J. Zimmer, Inequality, Individualized Risk, and Insecurity, 2013 Wis. L. Rev. 1 (2013).
In his paper, which was presented as the Thomas E. Fairchild Lecture at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Professor Michael Zimmer does a superb job of explaining how employment has factored into the economic inequality that is so prevalent in our society. Professor Zimmer explains how the middle class is quickly disappearing from the workplace, and how economic mobility is quickly on the decline. Most importantly, he charts a course toward rectifying the existing problems.
In the first part of this paper, Professor Zimmer examines how the current economic volatility has created numerous difficulties for everyday workers. In particular, he explores how the permanent-type relationships between employers and employees are going by the wayside, as businesses have moved toward an independent contractor model that allows them greater flexibility in managing their workforce. As the majority of U.S. workers are employees-at-will, most employees today have little security in their paychecks or in their health and retirement benefits. Professor Zimmer also does an excellent job of exploring how unionization has waned across the country. Thus, while workers still have the ability to organize and overcome employment-at-will, it is becoming far less common for them to do so.
Professor Zimmer explains how risks of all kinds in the workplace have been transferred from employers to employees. He notes that the courts have made it more difficult for individuals to avail themselves of statutory exceptions to employment-at-will. He explains that benefits have been slashed across the board by employers at the same time that health care costs are rising. And, he describes how it is becoming increasingly difficult for workers to have the guarantee of a secure retirement as a result of these shifts.
Professor Zimmer also does an outstanding job of explaining the cause of the current inequality and he examines ways that it can be addressed in the future. In perhaps the most illuminating part of the paper, Professor Zimmer clearly describes a path forward that can resolve the overwhelming problems that he identifies. He explains how and why there has been a notable decline in our sense of a “collective identity.” In its place, there has been an emphasis on individualism that is not realistic or practical. This is largely because the decision makers in our society—who will often be employers controlling the destiny of their workers—are making “choices that allow them to strive to maximize their own economic gain.” This maximization of wealth for the few comes at the expense of the common worker and the poor in our society. This shift has only been supported by the government, which has been concerned with “maximizing the interests of the richest segment of our society, the top tenth of one percent.”
In the final section of the paper, Professor Zimmer explains how we must revisit the role of money in politics if we are to resolve the current inequalities that exist. In particular, campaign finance is an issue that must be closely examined. The focus in our country must be moved away from maximizing the wealth of the few and toward policies that will benefit all workers. Thus, “[r]educing the role of money in politics is a necessary prerequisite to addressing the real problems most of the people in this country face.” Professor Zimmer is realistic about the difficulties involved in making this shift. As he notes, “the task ahead is daunting” given the “flow of virtually unlimited amounts of money into politics.” Nonetheless, creating less risk for employees, greater security, and less inequality is a goal worth fighting for. Professor Zimmer’s novel examination of this problem is well considered, well researched, and well argued. His thesis is a sense of inspiration, and should serve as a wake-up call for workers everywhere that a new path must be pursued. As he properly concludes, “[t]here should always be hope.”