Sunday, September 4, 2011

Labor Day

Tomorrow Labor Day will be celebrated. Some places celebrate it with vigor--New York Labor Day parades are among the biggest of the year--and some quietly. It is a good time to take stock of where are we in the world of labor these days?

In the early days of the industrial revolution, workers were frequently abused with long hours and poor working conditions. Workers in mines, steel plants, and textile mills fought for their right to organize and negotiate as a group with management. It was often a violent confrontation, with workers striking and making production a challenge and management fighting back, sometimes violently, sometimes with the threat of retaliation and job loss. At the same time, the press of the day began to expose industrial conditions. Between the pressure from organized workers and exposes from journos, the government began to step in with work rules. The landscape of work changed. The change washed into new industries such as the automobile plant, not always peacefully, as workers tried to deal with the new world of the assembly line. Somewhere along the road public employees became unionized. Frankly, my history is a little fuzzy on the whens and whys, but they did. You would think the government would treat workers well enough to avoid unions, but evidently not. Either that or they wanted the same goodies as the private sector workers.

Now here we are about 100 years later. Many of the industries that had bloody worker/management battles are greatly shrunken from their early and mid 20th century glory. Unions are on the wane, the need for them questioned. Yet the American worker is not experiencing great prosperity. Instead of a stable middle class living, workers are having to bounce from job to job as industries contract due to technology or shifting work to foreign lands with fewer regulations and a non-union workforce. Private corporations seem to have become dedicated only to creating wealth for large stock holders and the bosses. The sense of the greater good seems to have been lost somewhere along the road to profit and doing it cheaper.

Now we have employers writing their help wanteds to include "no unemployed need apply" and everyone is expected to be perfect in their "soft skills". Unemployed workers are discouraged, their self esteem lowered, their hope savaged. We lament that we don't make anything anymore. Many lay the fault for that at the feet of the union, saying union greed and rules made American labor too expensive and bound up in red tape. We ourselves also may have hurt ourselves in seeking bargains--turning our backs on American goods as they became more expensive and of poorer quality than comparable goods from overseas. Once companies realized that they could save money and still compete, it was all but over for large parts of the American industrial base.

I see this paradox today: unions did good, but then seemed to hurt the very industries and companies that caused them to flourish. However, it seems the American worker is hurting too, with hiring so slow, and done on an employer's tightly constrained playing field; employed workers doing much more work now, often saddled with mandatory overtime and constricted vacations--things that we took for granted. Real pay for the majority of workers has not kept up with inflation over the past couple of decades. Corporations get bigger and more multinational, less responsive to local concerns. It seems as if workers need to gain more power somehow, so that they are not just seen as cogs in the machine, their "soft skills" insuring that they will not make trouble, their fear of losing everything keeping them quiet in their places.

I can hear people saying that companies were not created to provide jobs, they were created to show profits for their owners. I hear people when they talk about how our free enterprise capitalist system has created so much innovation. Yet what I see now is a system out of balance, tilted towards the benefit of management and stock holders, not workers and customers. It is not any more morally right than 18 hour days and child labor.

I have to wonder, with such conditions, if people looking for a soft place to land have begun looking towards the government more and more. Whether it is that unionized government job, unemployment payments or disability status, people are looking for a soft place to land. More and more, that is not seen as something that comes out as a product of the free market system. I do not believe that is a good thing.

I don't have an answer, and there is a lot of noise and screaming coming from both the left and right, demonizing someone or another--corporations, the government, yada yada. Meantime, I think on the parable of the Good Samaritan and the instruction to love the neighbor as oneself and to be neighborly is to do acts of mercy.

And a happy Labor Day to you too.


Bob G. said...

This is one of the MOST brilliant commentaries on the whole "then and now" gig regarding LABOR in America.

Kudos to you for your insight.
And like you, I don;t have an aswer either, yet I feel that THE answer does lie within ALL of us...not individually perhaps, but TOGETHER...working side-by-side to bring America back from whatever precipice we find ourselves.

After all, it worked pretty darn well for us in the past.

A great post.

Stay safe out there.

The Observer said...

Thanks Bob for being a faithful reader and leaving such nice comments. Now I'm blushing.

The post actually could use a bit of editing but I'll have to do it later.

The Observer