Monday, September 04, 2006

Labor Day

In his 1985 EP Between The Wars, British singer Billy Bragg sang,

I'm bound to follow my conscience
And do whatever I can
But it'll take much more than the union law
To knock the fight out of a working man

Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?

(The full text can be found here.)

At this time in the UK, the unions were a hot topic, due to the recent epic battle between the National Union of Miners and the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Now some twenty-one years later, the unions appear to be a spent force, both in the UK and in the US. As today is supposed to be the day upon which labor and the workers should be celebrated, it is time to take stock.

Writing in The Nation, Katrina Vanden Heuvel (full text here) points to the growing gap between the salaries of CEOs as compared to those of workers. According to her analysis, the 'suits' are doing especially well in the oil and defense industries. She also points to the alarming disparities between the pay received by many of the troops in Iraq, as compared to the wages received by the civilian contractors. Another alarming fact that appears in the same place is that, since 2003 the median hourly wage has declined 2%, while productivity has increased. So, workers are doing more for less. Where is the benefit of this change going?

This makes one wonder who is it who looks after the interests of rank and file workers these days? It seems that almost nobody is! The traditional advocates for the working class, the Democrats have little power in Washington. Union membership is falling, due in part to the rise of union hostile companies, such as Wal-Mart. Given this situation, is it any surprise that more and more jobs these days lack benefits? To make matters worse, large corporations are now being permitted to abandon their pension funds. This comes after years of underfunding. Traditionally, issue concerning benefits and pensions, in addition to wage rates have been a major union concern.

Perhaps more alarming is an article in The San Francisco Chronicle, in which various Republicans are quoted equating unions with Terrorists! With attitudes like this, is it any surprise that for the first time now, 10% of US households receive over 50% of US income. What of the working person? If the regular person is faced with rising health care costs, no pension and low wages, this does not make for a happy, or healthy country. Although the claim is often made that high wages are justified for certain managerial positions, in order to attract the best people, is this really true? Also, what do the people making large salaries spend them on? Do they employ people, at more than minimum wage? Once again, what about the rank and file workers? After all, they are the people who actually do the work.

So, I advocate that there should be more unionization. There should be more collective bargaining. One thing that the quarterly-figure obsessed CEOs and CFOs often forget is that a happy workforce is a more versatile and productive workforce. Of course, as the bonuses paid to these 'suits' often depend upon short term numbers, they have no incentive to think for the longer term. However, if you are a CEO, then why not try an experiment? For one year, try and consider the workers as equal partners, as well as the share holders. If you are a worker, why not talk to your colleagues and management about organizing? If you are an educator, talk to your students about the importance of unions. I also recommend the excellent, though now rare The Little Red School Book.

In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau early in his Social Contract noted that, "MAN is born free; and everywhere he is in chains." This labor day, it would be wonderful if each of us could take a few steps to reduce the chains on workers. After all, 'which side are you on'?

The CP


Blogger sonia said...

In an ideal capitalist world, all companies would be so small that everybody would effectively work for himself. It's already happening more and more in many service sectors of the economy (especially high-tech ones). Hopefully, one day large companies will be history.

Thanks for the link, I am linking too...

11:46 AM  

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