Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Silent Voice of Labor

I searched in vain for words of meaning yesterday -- Labor Day. A voice of reason. A voice of passion. Barring that, even a voice of logic. I didn’t find one.

I did find one decent editorial from Linda Stamato;

Reflections on Labor Day: Work life in America.

Surely there would be a message from John Sweeny. Do you even know who he is ? Yesterday was Labor Day. Did you see the President of the AFL-CIO on TV ? Did you hear him on the radio ? I watched a lot of TV yesterday -- watching Hurricane Gustav as it made its way to New Orleans. I didn’t see Mr. Sweeny. Did you ? Did you hear any story about Labor on Labor Day ? I didn’t. Why not ?

Like so many jobs I took on in my union -- NATCA -- I guess I’ll have to take on this one too, in that no one else seems willing or able to do it. I don’t perceive myself as being particularly eloquent. I’m certainly not inspirational. But all the people that are seem to be preoccupied at the moment -- or silenced.

Who is Labor ? If you work for a living, you are. Chances are, you don’t belong to a union. Most people don’t. That doesn’t mean you aren’t Labor.

Once upon a time, we were all Labor. Go back in time as far as you need to in your mind to satisfy yourself that, once upon a time, all humans earned their living by the sweat of their brow. Most of us will come up with the image of a farmer. It was a simple life equation. You worked or you didn’t eat. The successful ones grew enough to eat with some left over to sell. If they were lucky enough to avoid a drought or a hailstorm -- or any other calamity for a few years -- they could accumulate some wealth. That allowed them to buy more land -- or to hire the ones that weren’t as successful, or just plain unlucky.

Nothing much has changed in the centuries since. The accumulation of wealth for some has been enormous. But most of us still labor for a living. Most of us don’t have employees. And most of us never will.

I hope that the advantage the successful/lucky hold over the unsuccessful/unlucky is obvious -- as obvious as how we define the roles in modern terms: Management and employee. The management has enough “food” to last several months, if not years. The employee does not. Men of goodwill can coexist in this situation. The employee is grateful to have a job and management benefits by adding to his wealth from the employee’s labor. However, people being people, conflicts will arise. It it here that the goodwill of the employee and management becomes critical. On the most fundamental level, it is also where greed enters the equation.

The employee wants more. The manager wants more. Humans want more. It is our nature. Reasonable people will recognize this and come to an acceptable compromise. If they don’t -- and it comes down to a conflict -- management has the upper hand.

This fundamental relationship has grown vastly more complicated as we have moved further and further away from the simple concept of “you don’t work -- you don’t eat.” Greed has become institutionalized in corporate profits. Whichever corporation can show the most profit -- the greediest one -- survives. No corporation demonstrates this trend better than Wal-Mart. It is well documented that a new local Wal-Mart drives out the “Mom and Pop” local retailers. What isn’t as understood is what it does to Labor -- you.

If you are fortunate enough to work for a company large enough to compete with Wal-Mart, your company has to hold its prices down too. As consumers, we like the sound of that -- low prices -- but your company nor Wal-Mart spends their millions of advertising dollars to promote the flip side of that coin -- low wages. All you hear on the TV and the radio is “low prices.” You will never hear a commercial from Wal-Mart -- or your company -- that touts “low wages.”

In a perfect world, this tremendous power of the corporations would be balanced by Government and/or Labor. We already know that the laborer alone does not have the power to confront the management. Without a union, he never will. That only leaves the Government to regulate the behavior of the corporation. If the Government won’t -- or becomes controlled by the corporation -- the corporation’s power is unchecked. You may think you work for a benevolent corporation run by reasonable men. Regardless, your corporation must compete with the Wal-Mart’s of the world. If they don’t successfully compete, the corporation will go out of business, taking your job with it.

Wal-Mart is the largest corporation in the world. Labor unions are legal in America. Wal-Mart doesn’t have a single union-represented store in America. Not even in New York, Chicago, California or any other place you might think is traditionally union. You’ve got to ask yourself if that is even probable -- much less possible -- legally.

Whatever you or your benevolent corporation might believe, you still have to compete. If suppressing union membership to keep wages low is the price of competing with Wal-Mart -- then your corporation will do it too. Or they will go out of business.

This is where you need to take your focus off of Wal-Mart and low wages. This is where you need to open your eyes and put on your thinking cap. If Corporation X is willing to break the law and no one -- including your Government -- is willing to hold them to account, they have an unfair, competitive advantage over corporations that abide by the law.

In this business model that rewards profits over conscience, profits determine the survivors. If you have to cheat to eat, you will. So will the corporations. The only thing that prevents cheating is the laws regulating commerce and the power of the Government to enforce those laws.

If you will look at the situation from this angle, deregulation takes on a whole new meaning. If you look at who has the power to control the Government -- and money equals power -- it is easy to recognize the danger.

If it is legal, your corporation will ship its jobs to China to compete. If legal, your corporation will cut your health care benefits to compete. If legal, your corporation will default on its pension plan to compete. It will suppress unions, refuse to pay overtime, hire illegal immigrants, pollute your environment, use lead paint on toys and kick you out of your house if that is what it takes to compete. It would sell its very soul to compete -- if it had one. It doesn’t.

Labelled by both contemporaries and historians as "the grandest society of merchants in the universe", the British East India Company would come to symbolize the dazzingly rich potential of the corporation, as well as new methods of business that could be both brutal and exploitive. “

More importantly, the East India Company demonstrated inherent flaws in the corporate form. The division between owners and managers in a joint-stock company, and the limited legal liability this division was based on, guaranteed that stockholders would be apathetic about a company's activities as long as the company continued to be profitable. “

The East India Company was formed in 1600. Effective controls over corporations -- regulations -- were eventually put into place. Labor unions were one check on corporate power (not until the late 1800s) but there is another -- written into the Constitution of the United States of America in 1776;

Amendment 1

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Those freedoms are all important but ask yourself a question; Which one is controlled by corporations ? I’ll go back to the beginning of this blog; "Did you hear any story about Labor on Labor Day ? Why not ?"

Hi there ! Welcome to Wal-Mart ! You either need to learn to say that -- with enthusiasm (I might add) or you need to learn to vote -- with enthusiasm.

Labor for Obama

Don Brown
September 2, 2008

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