By Jay Hansen
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This old proverb is perhaps most true and apt when it comes to labor. I’ve written about the state of labor on the global level before, but recently I’ve done some homework to brush up on my history regarding the topic. In today’s America, we now are a nation giving millions of dollars to companies in the form of subsidies and tax breaks, and its all in the name of “helping job creators,” as the Republicans put it, but honestly, does anyone really believe it when a politician says “job creator” anymore? Haven’t we all just accepted the phrase as a euphemism for the wealthy, or some other specialized interest group that is not representational of the interests of the citizens a representative is actually supposed to represent?
For example, in New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has given out $1.57 billion in state tax breaks to many large companies in the name of “job creation.” Mind you, he does so at a time when New Jersey’s budget and the budgets of its local governments are so badly in debt they can’t even afford toilet paper in their government buildings anymore. Of the $1.57 billion, $80 million went to the food company Goya, who used that money to create nine whole jobs. Campbell Soup was given $42 million, and they cut 100 jobs. Of course, they were punished for this, and had $8 million in credits taken away. For those of you that aren’t math wizards, that still leaves Campbell with $34 million of tax credits paid for by the New Jersey taxpayers, which the company was awarded after doing them the service of cutting 100 of their jobs.
But no, Republicans tell me we have to cut taxes for the “job creators,” right?
Another recent (and awesomely hypocritical) example of this is the gaming company 38 Studios. They were originally in Massachusetts, but the state of Rhode Island wanted their business, so they spent $112 million of Rhode Island taxpayer money trying to bring the company there, only for… well, this to happen:
Don’t even get me started on repatriation… just click the dang hyperlink.
How did we get to such a sorry state though? That’s where my studying comes in. Prior to the industrial revolution, most of the world still operated on some form of legalized serf or slavery system. A slave is inarguably the most economically efficient form of worker; you don’t have to give them any benefits like sick days or safe work environments, you can pay them almost nothing or nothing at all, and you’re generally free to abuse them however you wish. It just so happens that around the same time (depending on the country in question) as the industrial revolution, there also began revolutions to put an end to slavery. With no slavery the power of business owners to exploit their workers would be greatly diminished. They would have to actually pay those that did work for them, and have no control over their lives outside of the work day, costing them significantly financially and socially since they would no longer command such levels of authority. It was such an issue for those within the industries most heavily dependent upon slavery here in the United States that we fought a Civil War over it – one of the bloodiest wars in which our nation has ever taken part. The American Civil War was one of the biggest “last stands” of legalized slavery in the modernized world, but even afterward these same businessmen, making the transition from “master” to “employer,” would seek to exploit their workers however possible for personal gain.
This was already happening prior to the Civil War, especially in the more industry-based economy of the North where many states had long since abolished slavery following the Revolutionary War over half a century prior. Workers, particularly those of the textile industry, were abused to the point of practically being slaves. Again, they had no benefits or protections, had no limit to the number of hours they could be forced, or expected by their employer, to work, and did so for a pittance of pay; some working from sunup to sundown every day to earn less than $2 a week. This was because we had little to no labor law in the United States at that time (or at least what we would consider labor law today). Employer’s weren’t required to provide sick leave or vacation time, they weren’t required to give out overtime pay, or even pay any sort of any sort minimum wage because no such thing existed. Without these laws, there became a “race to the bottom” amongst potential employees. With no social safety nets or welfare programs, employees were literally dependent upon their employers to physically survive. Without their job, they could not afford the basic necessities of life, such as food and water, even if with their job they could only barely do so. Plus, with no laws or standards in place to protect workers or mandate minimum levels of proper treatment, each worker could work for less than the last. Each worker could work more hours than the last. Each worker could suffer more work-related physical pain and injury than the next. Unless you were willing to take cuts in pay or treatment, your job was in jeopardy the moment someone else came along willing to do the same job for cheaper. When compounded by a booming population as was brought on by the industrial revolution, the world found itself with an even greater surplus of potential workers, significantly more than it did employers, than the world had ever seen before, giving employers all new power despite being stripped of their legal right to slaves. For all too many employers it wasn’t about a person’s qualifications, but rather for how little money they’d be willing to work and what abuses they’d be willing to suffer. This allowed employers to create an environment wherein they could bring slavery back despite it being “outlawed,” and it was a dream come true for them.
It wasn’t until the late 19th, early 20th century that workers in America began to say no more. Ideologies like Communism and Socialism gave them newfound willpower to stand up and say no to these injustices, even if the governing principles of those ideologies were flawed. Employers were displeased with what must have felt to them as an old fashioned peasant revolt straight out of the Dark Ages. The will of America’s newly organized labor eventually collided head-on in many protests that turned tragically violent. A little over a year ago, Alan Grayson sent out an e-mail during the Wisconsin labor protests specifically about the right to collective bargaining, wherein he listed a few of these events. Here is an excerpt;
“On May 4, 1886, in Haymarket Square in Chicago, the public rallied peacefully in support of 40,000 workers in Chicago who had gone on strike, to win the right to organize. The police attacked, and eight died.
On July 6, 1892, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, 3800 workers went on strike, to win the right to organize. Three hundred hired and armed goons attacked them. Five people died.
On April 20, 1914, in Ludlow, Colorado, 1200 coal miners went on strike, to win the right to organize. The Colorado National Guard attacked their shantytown, and burned it to the ground. Nineteen people died. Two women and 11 children were asphyxiated, and they burned to death.”
For one of the last times in American history, citizens were coming together, fighting, and even dying for their rights here on American soil. They were dying for their just beliefs that workers should be treated with a bare minimum level of respect. They were fighting for their right to survive and build this nation to be what it has become today. Had they not, had Americans not earned these rights with the blood, sweat, and tears of these men and women, there’s no possible way America would be the power that it is today, and the American Dream would never have been realized.
Republicans today are always complaining of big government getting in employment’s and businesses’ way, being over-regulating or over-burdensome, making the claim that it would be better if employers were simply allowed to make decisions for themselves on how much to pay employees, what benefits to extend to them, and generally how to treat them. Apparently though, Republicans aren’t too good with their history because as I’ve just highlighted we already tried that in this nation, and it did not work well.
After seeing riots break out in city after city in America, and watching helplessly as entire nations fell to Communism, eventually, to prevent an all out revolt of national proportions, workers were given their rights they have today. Over time, the memory of this struggle faded from the minds of Americans as they grew more and more settled in the middle class, living long, happy, healthy lives the likes of which their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents could only dream. This, coupled with the constant threat of Communism, quelled the rebellious working class and contained the abuses of the aforementioned employers both through a certain sense of nationalism to “fight the Ruskies” and, more importantly, a certain level of fear of Communism taking hold in America should their abuses of workers grow too much for them to bare.
The years would pass, however, as would the threat of Communism. Technology advanced significantly, and our once massive world began to shrink. Transportation technology became much more efficient, and information exchange even more so with the digital revolution of the 1990s. Many Asian countries began fighting for and winning their freedom throughout the mid 20th century, enabling them to bring new forms of employment to their shores. The problem with this, though, was that these nations were at a similar place America was over a century ago in terms of development – perhaps most importantly in the field of worker’s rights. The long dormant employers that sought to create environments that turned their legal employees into slaves found themselves with a new outlet for their abuse; foreign countries. With communication from one side of the world to the other now possible in the flash of a second, any sort of data-related job or telecommunication was outsourced to the nations that did not yet have worker’s protections in place. Later, significant levels of manufacturing were also outsourced as our ability to ship goods was also aided by the technological explosion of the late 20th century and trade routes were safer because there was no significant hostility between world powers in the post-Cold War era. Goods like cheap plastic containers, toys, and other assorted knick-knacks, as well as textiles and anything digital or computer-related are now made overseas and shipped, not to mention consumed, en masse by the American people. This ultimately led to what we now know as outsourcing, and is causing a significant problem when it comes to creating jobs in America.
Labor in foreign nations is just cheaper. Employees are worked to death, sometimes literally, with as many as 100 hours of overtime, in squalor working conditions. Not paying for air conditioning is cheaper. Paying for a bigger factory so workers aren’t crammed together like sardines costs money. Paying for chairs for workers costs money. If the employer or businessman that opened this factory in Taiwan, or China, or a multitude of other nations, had opened it in America instead, he would have been required to make these expenses by law, which exists for the sake and protection of the workers from employers seeking to exploit them. The very fact that American-owned manufacturers exist overseas is proof in and of itself; even employers of today’s America are still looking to cut costs through any means possible, even if that means forcing their employees into a de facto slavery.
Why on Earth should we give them the ability to mistreat American workers, as they so clearly demonstrate they’re willing to do, or at least allow, to workers on the other side of the world? Republicans are currently of the position that it should be allowed to save the infallible, precious “job creators” (i.e. the wealthy) a few more pennies. They want to go back to a time as depicted by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, where there were no safety regulations, no worker’s rights or benefits, not even a minimum wage, as I explained earlier in this article.
But therein lies the problem to which there isn’t much in the way of a specific answer; how do we prevent this? Businesses large enough to be based in America, but outsource jobs to foreign nations, are large-scale corporations. These entities are neither moral nor immoral, but rather amoral, meaning they don’t do or see good or bad. Their entire purpose for existence is to make profits at any costs. Therefore, outsourcing will always happen, because there will always be a “lowest bidder” nation with the fewest regulations and labor laws, yet also with reasonable security and stability. The American people have no say or control over what other governments’ policies and laws are, let alone the indifferent, corrupt American government (even if it wanted to make a change for the better). We could create preventative laws here to stop outsourcing, or at the very least make it the less affordable option to opening factories here in America through our tax and trade policies, but with new free trade deals as recently supported wildly by both Democrats and Republicans, the US government is only putting in an express lane to allow these companies that outsource jobs to re-import their goods manufactured elsewhere without paying standard import taxes and fees on them. Clearly, if my “indifferent and corrupt” comment didn’t make it clear enough, it’s not likely we can count on the government to take direct action on this issue any time soon. Both smaller, more specific steps must be taken on this specific issue, as well as sweeping reform of a broken system, before we could even come close to reaching any sort of policy like this.
But, as the battle of a democracy marches ever-onward, what do we do in the mean time?
This question brings me back to my opening statement; a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. As the working class of this world, we must all look out for each other. This is one of the founding principles of organized labor. It doesn’t take much; if only a single worker out of one thousand, or even one million, is willing to sell out his rights for pay, it lowers the standard for all of us, pitting worker against worker to see who can sell out more. We’re caught in this vicious cycle right now on a global scale, and America is in danger of slipping back in time over a century to “make job creation in America affordable again,” as Republicans often put it. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening both in America, and across the world. On the global scale, we can help by supporting democratic efforts in oppressed nations, such as those that took place in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and countless other nations fighting and dying for just the tiniest flicker of a hope they may too have a democracy, and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Only once nations embrace this kind of true democracy, something of which even America has lost sight (but is not yet beyond hope) do we even stand a chance of putting these abuses of the working class by the wealthy and powerful to rest once and for all.
(Note from the author: most of my historical research did come from either my old college textbooks, which I obviously can’t hyperlink, or generalized Wikipedia reading, of which I always checked the sources of at the bottom of the page. I apologize for not linking them all in the text; that would have been a tremendous amount of links and information through which to sift. If you wish to check my facts for me, feel free. Hell, I’d encourage it.)