It’s not real hard to figure out why the labor movement in the US is probably doomed in perpetuity. It’s built right into the way we think about labor. Watch, we’ll do a thought experiment.
So, the way that the Free Market is supposed to work is that different economic actors want different things for different prices, and we negotiate together to create the most efficient exchange. I want a hamburger, and McDonalds wants my money — I try to get the maximum hamburger for my dollar, they try to give me the minimum hamburger for my dollar, and between these two needs the most efficient value hamburger is created.
You can look at labor the same way, but hardly any of us does. The essential components of labor are work and cost, and an employer tries to get the maximum amount of work for the minimum amount of cost.
In the US, that attitude is admirable — “entrepreneur!” “businessman!”, &c. — or, at the very least, it’s morally neutral. “That’s how business works!” “That’s how he makes a profit!” There’s no argument against trying to get the maximum work for the minimum cost; we’ve accepted this as a standard component of a successful business. The economy would collapse if employers couldn’t pursue profits in this fashion.
But what about the other side? What do you call a laborer who wants the maximum pay for the minimum work?
Oh, shit, you already hate that guy, don’t you? That guy is already lazy and greedy. Who does that asshole think he is, getting by on the minimum amount of work?
Of course, that guy is only doing the same thing his boss is doing; he’s pursuing his own economic self-interest as part of a complex system that is (hopefully, anyway) supposed to provide for everyone (hahaha, I don’t actually even know if Capitalism IS supposed to do that; I am not sure what the ideal result of Capitalism is). And, in fact, if we treated Labor like Capital — if we thought about the Teamsters, instead of as lazy, shiftless “workers” who are trying to get more pay for doing less work, as a COMPANY that sold a PRODUCT, suddenly the whole idea becomes more palatable, doesn’t it?
You wouldn’t expect a company that sold you 40 hours of truck-driving over a week to throw in an extra twenty hours free of charge just because you wanted it, any more than you’d expect to go into the McDonalds and say, “My blood sugar is low today, toss an extra hamburger in there for me.”
The issue is that, on paper, the free-market system is fair, because while everyone looks out for their own economic self-interest, the efficient system is negotiated. But in practice, we are psychologically incapable of treating all the market actors fairly. A company that demands its workers stay late or put in weekend hours is just doing what it needs to survive; a worker who refuses to put those hours in is lazy and selfish. When Hostess wanted to cut its workers’ pay by half over the next five years, the bosses were just thinking about the bottom line; when the workers refused to work for half salary, they were being greedy and stupid.
It’s part of a feudal attitude, I think, that we never really shook off — that the “owners”, or the bosses, or management, they deserve everything they’ve got (because they worked for it, I guess), but that the workers, or serfs, or whatever, don’t deserve anything. Look at how readily we let “entitlement” become a dirty word.
How dare you, workers — how dare you insist that you’re ENTITLED to anything? You’re lucky we’ve even given you a job in the first place! You should be grateful to work for pennies, should be THANKFUL that we let you put in eighty hours at work to demonstrate how much you care about our company!
Or else, it’s a product of that old Protestant Work Ethic, which was maybe a decent enough philosophy before the Industrial Revolution, when everyone owned their own copper-smithy or something, as long as you weren’t a slave or a serf or an “indentured” servant. We’re still stuck with it though, aren’t we, even though it’s completely fucking preposterous.
What possible moral or philosophical grounds are there to say that people who work for Wal-Mart should care about Wal-Mart? They don’t share their profits, so there’s no immediate financial interest. They didn’t give you a job because they’re doing you a FAVOR, they gave you one because they need workers — so there’s no psychological interest. The work isn’t ENNOBLING, the work isn’t good for your SOUL, it doesn’t challenge your body or your mind. It doesn’t, frankly, make the world appreciably better in any demonstrable way.
And yet, if I stood up and said, “This is a bullshit job, and the only reason I work it is because I need to pay my bills,” I’d be the ungrateful asshole. If I demanded vacation time or reasonable hours or a living wage, I’d be the asshole for feeling ENTITLED to free time or, you know, sufficient FOOD, just because I’d put in my hours. I’d be the asshole, because shouldn’t I be grateful — GRATEFUL — that I have a job in the first place?
No mention is made, of course, of how grateful Wal-Mart ought to be for their cheap labor in the first place. Who are they, that they can feel entitled to workers who’ll work for minimum wage, without vacation, without health benefits, engaged in pointless brainless useless labor for forty hours a week? They should be grateful that ANYONE wants to work for them, but of course, because of a quirk in population rates, there are more people than there are jobs, and so Wal-Mart doesn’t have to be grateful for shit, instead they can be resentful of the lazy assholes who aren’t satisfied with their pittance salaries, of their demands for a basic quality of life.
(Imagine, for a second, if John Schnatter — found of Papa John’s — every year on Labor Day had to send a video message around to his employees. Standing in front of his gigantic, thirty million dollar castle, he would say, “Thank you all so much. Your tireless efforts have allowed me to buy this enormous house, with twenty more rooms than I’m even capable of using. Keep up the good work!” That doesn’t happen though, because we have to pretend that John Schnatter’s wealth is the result of his labor as CEO, which is somehow independent and irrespective of the labor of his thousand, barely-making-a-living-wage employees.)
Finally, I guess maybe it’s just because in America, we’re so committed to the notion of individuality that this kind of shit doesn’t bother us. We’re consumers, not Americans; we don’t go around and say, “I’m going to make my shopping and political decisions based on ensuring that the maximum amount of Americans have the highest quality of life”, because I’m not responsible for them, I don’t owe them anything, they’re nothing to do with me.
Instead, we walk around and say, “I’m going to make my shopping decisions and my political decisions based on how cheap the stuff I want is.” I’m a consumer first, and an American second.
D. G. Yuengling wants to make Pennsylvania a Right to Work state; this is one of those Orwellian laws that has got a name that’s sort of the opposite of what it means — “Right to Work” really means “Right to Work Overtime without Extra Pay,” “Right to Work Without a Raise,” “Right to Work Until Your Boss Fires You Because He Doesn’t Like Your Haircut,” “Right to Work Without Leave,” “Right to Work Without Medical Benefits” — because he feels like labor unions are hurting the economy.
Of course, by “the economy” he means himself, and people like him — people who own businesses. For whatever reason, workers aren’t factored in when we talk about “the economy”; I guess because wages and benefits count AGAINST share value or something. Anyway, of course he hates unions, THOSE guys keep pursuing their own pesky economic interests, insisting on higher wages and more benefits in exchange for making D. G. Yuengling (and sons) rich. He wants another kind of worker, some kind of worker who’ll break his back making D. G. Yuengling successful, simply for the soul-enriching pleasure of the work, and will be grateful for the chance to do it.
Yeungling feels confident saying this, because he thinks we’re a nation of Consumers, not a nation of Americans — he thinks that we’d rather be able to buy his junky beer for $3 a pint than throw in the extra buck-fifty it would cost to ensure that our countrymen had living wages and could see a doctor when they get sick, could maybe take a week off and go to Ocean City once a year.
He’s probably right.
Happy Labor Day.