By Jay Hansen
(Originally posted September 5th, 2011)
In honor of Labor Day, I’ve finally decided to share with you all something that’s been on my mind for a long time. If you recall, a few notes ago I wrote about political code talk, and what politicians really mean when they say they want to make job creation in the United States the affordable option, as opposed to opening a factor in China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, etc. Long story short, they say they want to lower taxes for companies and the wealthy with no strings attached, claiming that this alone will incentivize job creation in the United States despite having no proof of that, and the existence of evidence to the contrary. Right-wing ideology supports tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, while cutting workers’ benefits, increasing their taxes, and abolishing minimum wage laws, work environment safety regulations, and even child labor laws. Without these laws, there is absolutely no protection for the American worker, and our society will be plunged back to Upton Sinclair’s Jungle. Simultaneously, these same right-wingers also support abolishing or drastically cutting entitlement programs like Social Security, which act as insurance that our elderly and disabled won’t have to work beyond their able years. So basically, right-wing ideology is that the lower and middle class should be paid slave wages in deplorable working conditions for limitless hours a day with no overtime pay or benefits until they drop dead on the factory floor.
An exaggeration? Hardly, given the actual political positions of many in the Republican party. If we eliminate government requirements and regulations that companies pay minimum wages, maintain relatively safe working environments, ban children from working dangerous jobs, and generally take care of their employees, then they won’t. To believe otherwise is both naïve of corporate nature and ignorant of history. Corporations and other for-profit institutions are neither moral nor immoral; they’re amoral. Their only goal is to make money, not do good or evil. If they can make more profit by cutting benefits or generally not taking care of their employees, they will. It’s not a question of what’s right or wrong; it’s a question of what’s profitable. As Cenk Uygur always points out, if an executive of a big company were to propose the idea that CEOs give up a small portion of their paychecks (which comes from their profits) in order to provide better care for their physical laborers with no financial gain for the company, he’d be fired that day. If that weren’t enough proof for you, just keep in mind that there was once a time in American history where we didn’t have such regulations or protections for our workers. As I alluded to earlier, that America can be seen in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. In honor of Labor Day, I would suggest trying to pick up a copy and giving it a quick read if you haven’t already for insight on what America would look like, and what it did look like, without the very laws, regulations, and insurances Republican politicians want to eliminate.
As I pointed out in my piece on political code talk, however, right-wing politicians are right on one thing; it is cheaper to open a factory in China, or any number of other nations, than it is in the United States because the workers of these countries are not given the same bare-minimum level of decency and respect that all too many American workers take for granted. In many Asian countries, factory workers are barely paid enough to buy food, let alone a safe place to live or a retirement program. This is why we have the minimum wage and Social Security, among other things, in the United States. The question we face is how to overcome this problem. The United States government can’t control the laws of foreign governments, so we can’t legally require them to treat their workers better. Republican (and many right-wing Democratic) law makers have decided the only solution is to lower the standard of our work environments and care for labor to that of other nations that pay little to no respect to the human beings that make up their workforces. This is the core principle behind right-wing ideology’s view of labor in today’s world.
Let’s say there’s a company in the United Arab Emirates that hires people to build a new skyscraper for them, but only pays them enough money for food and prevents them from leaving the nation. Or maybe there’s a factory in China that forces its employees to work 100 hours of overtime a month. The reaction of the American right-wing is that we have to give up our worker’s rights (and give more tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations) because other nations decide to so deplorably treat their own all in the name of “competing” with their “more affordable” (slave) labor. Does that seem right to you?
If our government is either so helpless or so unwilling to better the conditions in other nations, then the matter of worker’s rights is in the hands of workers themselves. That is why I wrote this note. When it comes to employees, the lowest bidder will always win thanks to our ever-shrinking world. A company in the United States could open a factory in India without even a second thought, so whichever workers of the world are willing, or are forced, to work for the lowest wages and least benefits and respect are the ones that will keep winning the jobs. As workers, we must unify in a single, global labor movement to ensure that workers everywhere can be given proper treatment. Unionized labor at the national level here in the United States did miracles during the labor reform years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and as unionized labor in the United States decreased over the past few decades, so did worker’s income and rights. The answer, then, is clear.
To dust off an old nutshell, workers of the world must unite to fight for mutual rights and demand proper treatment from employers that would seek to abuse them. Do not misjudge me; I am not a communist, and I’m well aware that not all employers are as amoral as the world’s largest corporations (especially at the small business level). I don’t feel, however, that asking for certain minimum guarantees for employees is too much. All full-time workers of the world should be entitled to enough income to pay for the full cost of living, or have the necessities of life provided to them by their government, with at least some percentage left over to either go towards savings or to spend on luxuries. All workers should be entitled to sick leave, and not have to worry about being fired if they don’t show up to work because they have a highly contagious disease. All workers should be entitled to safe work environments relative to the job in question. All workers should be entitled to some form of retirement. All workers should be allowed to collectively negotiate and bargain with their employers. No worker should be forced to work endless hours. No worker should be forced to work overtime without proper compensation. No worker should be forced to work against their will. No worker should be forced to work beyond their physical limits due to age or disability. Young children should be strictly banned at the global level from working in factories, mines, power plants, and other highly dangerous locations. All workers of the world should be entitled to basic human respect and dignity if not great gratitude for their sacrifice and effort to build our world. These things should be non-negotiable, and demanded by all the workers everywhere in a single, unified effort to make this world a better place.
So this Labor Day, keep this note in mind as you honor the hard workers in your life. Give them thanks for all they do to build and maintain our society. Thank them for keeping our buildings sturdy, our roads and bridges safe, our factories productive, our hospitals clean, our planes and trains running on time, our shelves stocked, our files organized, our computers and machinery functioning, our consumers happy, and so much more that keeps our world spinning.