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Going Into Labor

The American worker is rapidly becoming an endangered species. For much of the 20th century, America built its economic base on its manufacturing, having raw materials in abundance and a workforce that was second to none.

Manufacturing jobs for the most part have fled to nations where the work can be done more cheaply. Some blame the unions for pricing the American worker out of the market; others blame the greed of corporate executives wishing to cut costs – and often corners – for the sake of improving that bottom line.

There is no doubt that the shape of the American workplace is changing. Most of the blue collar jobs are drying up; service jobs remain, but even they are being off-shored. Soon our workforce will fall into medical/technical jobs, financial jobs, legal/government jobs, hospitality and retail. Oh, there will be construction and home maintenance jobs (i.e. plumbers, electricians, roofers) as well as transportation (trucking, shipping, trains, planes and automobiles) but for the most part manufacturing will be done overseas and goods imported here.

Of course there will also be farmers – food is a necessity that we can’t go without, but the bulk of our food is being provided by the factory farm – large-scale operations run by large-scale companies that run their operations based on corporate needs (i.e. bottom line profit) as opposed to what’s best for the product and the consumer.

That is the ultimate issue we have as a people with large companies – the profit ideal vs. the service ideal. It was once a corporate credo that superior products would be successful. They have learned now that cheap products are what is successful. The adage “you get what you pay for” has never been more apt.

Are we going to change a corporate environment on a national level that promotes greed to the extreme and encourages corners to be cut, safety to be compromised and long-term thinking subverted by short-term profits? Probably not. Getting companies to act responsibly means demonstrating that doing so is in their own self-interest. Corporate entities – in fact, just about any kind of human group or individual – operate solely in their own best interest. The sorry state of affairs that we’re in is that most companies believe that profit is the sole item of self-interest. Most companies aren’t all that interested in sustaining a market share; they want to be the market. That’s led to a very unhealthy atmosphere.

Small business has been the backbone of this country. It has become very difficult in this climate to sustain one; however, they are starting to make a comeback. People are beginning to warm to the idea of buying locally, even if it is a little more expensive, and choosing quality over cheap and mass-produced. Think of it as a kind of anti-Wal-Mart mentality.

I am not a big fan of the retail giant. I think part of the American consumer’s mentality is based on cheap is better, and who promotes that mentality more than Wal-Mart? It’s been documented that Wal-Mart has bullied suppliers of their product to lower their own prices in order to be stocked in Wal-Mart stores; the downside to that is that these suppliers have to find ways to lower costs and often that means having their product manufactured overseas, often in third world countries where working conditions are deplorable, or in China – where working conditions are often deplorable.

That said, I don’t think Wal-Mart is inherently evil. They simply are giving their customers what they want, which is low prices. If Americans demanded that the things they purchased be manufactured in America, even if it meant paying more, Wal-Mart would provide that instead. They didn’t get to their position by being dumb; they got there because they had a finger on the pulse of the American consumer mentality. That mentality, sadly, has gone global.

All of this means jobs going bye-bye. I’ve mentioned that several times, and it really glosses over the human toll of it. It’s easy to talk about jobs being lost, but every single one of those jobs was filled by a person. Many of those people had families who depended on that income to survive. Every one of those people would feel marginalized when they were told their services were no longer required. Every one of them faced self-doubt and self-recrimination – its part of the process of losing a job, and nowhere else do a people identify themselves more by what their job is than here.

I mentioned unions earlier. I am a believer in unions. I was a shop steward in one for years. Unions, in their purest form, represent the interests of the working person in negotiations with company bosses. They negotiate pay and benefits and help define the process of disciplinary actions as well as the terms of employment for the worker.

That’s not to say that unions are perfect. Certainly there have been abuses and some unions have become worse than the companies they negotiated against. Did they price the American worker out of the job market? No, certainly not – that was done by companies who would pay pennies an hour to someone living in Mexico or China rather than a wage reflecting the cost of living here. With the cost of living being what it is, no worker could survive on what is paid to workers living in countries where necessities cost significantly less than they do here. There are places where an annual income of $7,000 is considered middle class; in the United States that’s less than half of what is considered the income of someone living in poverty. No union can hope to negotiate against that.

Unions are also prone to working in their own self-interest. Keeping as many dues-paying union members often becomes a priority ahead of doing what’s right for the worker and yes, that means protecting the health of the comany that employs them. There are no dues, after all, when there are no jobs. Ask the American Steelworkers Union about that.

One of the big issues I have with a union is that they tend to discourage pay based on merit and rather base rewards on seniority. That promotes a line of thinking that the ultimate goal is to do just enough to remain on the job; stay long enough and it’s almost impossible to get rid of you, even though you are patently not doing your job. The issue of tenure comes to mind here; public school teachers attain it after as little as two years and once they have it, it takes egregious behavior to be removed from your job. In those situations, educating the student becomes secondary to protecting your own job. Jobs are treated as sinecures – as a workers right. Nobody has a right to be employed; jobs are earned, not given. A climate of entitlement often pervades union shops but is also present amongst non-union workers as well.

It also must be said that there seems to be much less of a desire on the part of the average American worker to take pride in one’s work. I’m only speaking anecdotally but there seems to be a feeling that since they perceive (and not without just cause) that their employers are not only not looking out for them, they are being badly used by their bosses and their companies. As jobs disappear, those who remain on the workforce are forced to do more, often for less pay (or pay that is worth less as inflation eats away at our paychecks). It’s a sentiment I can understand; honestly, I’ve shared it.

As in anything, there must be give and take for the American worker. He/she must be willing to do more than just the minimum; they need to take pride in their product and work reasonably hard to make the product the best it can possibly be, whether they are selling toothpaste or a financial service. Everyone benefits when the company is successful and is willing to share their success with those who are responsible for it.

By the same token, companies must understand that the more they send jobs overseas, the more they erode their own market. A bad economy benefits no-one except perhaps for the super-wealthy. Companies need to be urged to think long-term once again, and by long-term I’m talking twenty, thirty, or fifty years down the line. A five-year plan is great, but it doesn’t take into account the necessity of protecting your own market. Why build cars at all if nobody in this country can afford them? It’s a fact of life that Ford, GM and other manufacturers have had to come to grips with.

Everything is interrelated. Global economics have become so complicated and tangled up that if one business sector gets into trouble, all of them suffer. When oil prices started to go through the roof, the price of nearly everything skyrocketed. Some of the more unscrupulous businesses not only added the higher cost of transportation but multiplied it by many times, adding to their profit.

Most people are not really interested in a free ride. Most of us simply want to work; work provides a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment that we all need and obviously it also provides a means of income that we have to have to provide the necessities as well as the luxuries for ourselves and our families. The American worker has gotten a bad rap recently and it isn’t entirely undeserved. We can’t control what big businesses do in their own self-interest but we can control the quality of our own work. Hopefully both big business and the American worker can find some common ground – it is, after all, in everyone’s best self-interest.


3 Responses

  1. I adore you Carlos. It is very hard for me to be an adversary in any situation and especially when it is someone I care deeply about. I am not competitive and I dont plan to fall on my sword for anything. I wish you and I had many hours to spend visiting about this subject because I believe we could bounce enough off of each other to solve some problems. The world is GLOBAL now, there is no going back. There are many countries competing for the worlds super power, of which America will fall to second place and continue downward as our competitors rise. We were lured into a false sense of security a long time ago and it has gone to far now to wake up. That being said, perhaps the best we can do now is figure out where will we fit in this new global world economy and society. It is not all about us. We are not even on the right side of the earth. There are issues far above us driving this world room. Hugs and kisses, me.

    • I think we’re in complete agreement on this. The situation is such in the U.S. that we’re undereducated and over-expectant. We want a lifestyle that we’re not willing to work for, and it has come back to bite us where it hurts most. We still have the resources, but the resource we need most is brainpower and we simply aren’t producing enough people versed in the sciences to create the innovation this country needs to remain competitive. And so, we will have to find our place as you put it. I don’t think thats so much unpatriotic as it is realistic. Hopefully, we won’t fall any further than that.

      Thanks for the kind words. I adore you right back sweetie! Hugs and kisses!!!

      • I agree. Thing is will we trade place with other societies and cultures or will we meld into one? At some point those of us who have lived comfortably by the fruits of our labors are going to be uncomfortable once that is gone, or will it be that we will too old for it to affect us and therefore the younger generations who deal with it will know nothing else. Rebellion vs Respect. We shall see or they shall see where America ends up huh? I would be willing to be no other group will be able to be as good as America was.

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