Monday, September 02, 2013

The last Labor Day?


Which Republican said this?
(For the answer, see E. J. Dionne Jr. below)

"Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

by Ken

I thought of starting this note by saying something like: "Allow me to be the last person to remind you that Labor Day sure ain't what it used to be." Then it occurred to me that the condition is so well settled that only the die-hards even think to mention it anymore. "Labor" has become a joke, and the people who perform it a cheap commodity, totally replaceable and barely worthy even of contempt.

I feel guilty patronizing the big new dollar store that opened a couple of years ago in my neighborhood, one that doesn't have a lot of big or new stores. (By "new" I mean an actually new building, of which this store occupies the ground floor.) I've found some products they sell that suit my needs fine at a substantially lower price than either the same products or unnecessarily fancier equivalents would cost me elsewhere. But I know perfectly well that none of the cashiers are "employees" in the sense one would once have understood.

They're all part-timers, with schedules calculated to make sure that none of them are entitled to any benefits beyond their hourly wage, which I'm guessing hovers pretty near NYS's mandated minimum. I wonder how those women (naturally they're almost all women) put food on their families' tables, especially if they're the sole wage earners in their households. They must surely need at least one other part-time job just to provide shelter and food.

To make myself feel less guilty, I consider that at least those people are being paid something, and I would hardly be improving their employment situation if I withheld my exceedingly modest patronage. As it is, the store rarely seems to me to be generating enough business to cover what I don't imagine is a modest rent for so much space in a brand-new building.

Not surprisingly, E. J. Dionne Jr. gets it all. Here's how he begins his column "The last Labor Day?":
Let's get it over with and rename the holiday "Capital Day." We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil -- the phrase itself seems antique -- as worthy of genuine respect.

Imagine a Republican saying this: "Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

These heretical thoughts would inspire horror among our friends at Fox News or in the Tea Party. They'd likely label them as Marxist, socialist or Big Labor propaganda. Too bad for Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, who offered those words in his annual message to Congress in 1861. Will President Obama dare say anything like this in his jobs speech this week?
Farther along in his "Capital Day" column here's what E.J. has to say:
Consider that what the media call economics reporting is largely finance reporting. Once upon a time, a lively band of labor reporters covered the world of work and unions. If you stipulate that the decline of unions makes the old labor beat a bit less compelling, there are still tens of millions of workers who do their jobs every day. But when the labor beat withered, it was rarely replaced by a work beat. Workers have vanished.

But we are now inundated with news (and "news") about the world of capital. CNBC and the other financial media are for investors what ESPN is for sports junkies. We cheer the markets, learn the obscure language of hedge fund managers and get to know some of the big investors in off-field interviews. Workers are regarded as factors of production. At best, they're consumers; at worst, they're "labor costs" cutting into profits and the sacred stock price.

Workers have faded away in both high and popular culture, too. Can you point to someone "who makes art out of working-class lives by refusing to prettify them"?

The phrase comes from a 2006 essay by the critic William Deresiewicz, who observed that we have few novelists such as John Steinbeck or John Dos Passos who take the lives of working people seriously. Nor do we have television shows along the lines of "The Honeymooners" or even "All in the Family," which were parodies of an affectionate sort. "First we stopped noticing members of the working class," Deresiewicz wrote, "and now we're convinced they don't exist."

In his extraordinary book "Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class," Jefferson Cowie spoke of how little we identify working-class people with their labor. "Workers occasionally reappeared in public discourse as 'Reagan Democrats' -- later as 'NASCAR Dads,'‚ÄČ" he wrote, "or the victims of another plant shutdown or as irrational protectionist and protesters of free trade, but rarely did they appear as workers."

With the worker disappearing from our media and our consciousness, isn't it only a matter of time before Labor Day falls off the calendar? As long as it's there, it should shame us about our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day.
I know in one of the daily news e-summaries today I saw a piece announcing that the gap between executive pay and regular folks' wages is continuing and expected to continue continuing at a brisk pace. The squib for the piece said something mealy-mouthed about the executive pay gains not necessarily being connectable to performance. I didn't bother reading the piece, and I can't find the link. But you don't really want to read it, do you? Haven't we all read it umpteen times already?

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At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You wonder "wonder how those women (naturally they're almost all women) put food on their families' tables."

The secret, gleaned from the eminent scholar, economist, sociologist AND "war president," GW Bush, is this: they put food DIRECTLY onto their families, cleverly and efficiently bypassing the table or even the need of a table.

It's really a very simple and elegant solution made possible by our entrepreneurial spirit that the French don't have.

John Puma

At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Krugman's column today had this comment from a retiree, David Underwood, that resonated with me:

I spent most of my working years as a member of a union. Not just one, but several. Thanks to the working conditions I had under union contracts, I have a good retirement, good health, good teeth, and what most of you would consider economic security. [...]

My last employment gave me a defined benefit pension, 401k, medical and dental insurance, paid my wife's medical plan until she became 65. Today thanks to those union contracts, my income is actually more than I had when I retired.

I worked for some very nice companies and some very miserable ones, I did not have to kiss up anyone to keep a job All I had to do was my job correctly, follow a few rules like getting to work on time, and treat my fellow workers with courtesy. [...]

Over the years I heard many people denigrate unions, while they worked their 40 hour week, got paid holidays, medical insurance, paid vacations without ever considering how they got these benefits. We celebrate Labor Day to commemorate those who risked their jobs and even lives so we could have those conditions. They did not come from the goodness of heart of industry, we fought for them.

I, too, remember many people denigrating unions while they enjoyed the salaries, raises and benefits they were able to demand in a tight job market. Many of the scoffers were up and coming IT workers, who were sure they couldn't be replaced, or their jobs outsourced.

Half the libertarians that drool over Crazy Uncle Liberty and his hypocrite son Sen. Aqua Buddha (h/t Charlie Pierce) are tech industry drones and Wall St. types. These were the guys sneering for the cameras at the striking workers during the last NY transit strike, calling them losers because the Masters of Their Own Shitty Little Universe had to walk to work.

What will these assholes say when the real overlords find a way to get rid of them too?

It's clear that the Owners of the country consider us all expendable, an inconvenience. To them, the perfect corporation is one with no employees, just management and shareholders, who are often one and the same.

The biggest mistake made by organized labor was not pushing every bit as hard to unionize white collar jobs as they pushed to unionize manufacturing and blue collar jobs. The union movement was able to bring public sector white collar jobs under its protection, but somehow stopped short of unionizing private sector white collar jobs.

Now, manufacturing jobs have been offshored to chase the lowest wage. Public sector unions are under unceasing attack from Republican governors and state houses. The attacks resonate with an ignorant electorate that barely knows what a union is anymore.

Meanwhile, the private sector cubicle drones have seen the salaries, raises and benefits they thought were theirs by right, melt away along with the job market. And when they get laid off in the next round of RIFs, they have no recourse. Oh, but unions are for losers. Well, congratulations. Now you're a loser.

At 11:08 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Lots of important ideas there -- thanks! And it does all come back to the boldfaced portion:

"We celebrate Labor Day to commemorate those who risked their jobs and even lives so we could have those conditions. They did not come from the goodness of heart of industry, we fought for them."

I wish I knew how it's possible to make people understand this.



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