Thursday, December 6, 2012

The New Contempt for Workers

You don't have to read Marx to know that conflict between workers and business owners can happen. They have different goals, different visions for their goals, and different perspectives. Even in the best scenarios, finding compromise between competing self-interest isn't always easy. However, business ownership (at least those owners making headlines) seem to have a contempt for their workers not shared by the previous generation. This new contempt was most clearly and eloquently expressed in Mitt Romney's infamous 47% comment, where he managed to both, prove that didn't know what he was talking about and call nearly half the population lazy moochers. But this contempt has taken many other forms.

The CEO of Papa John's thinks providing healthcare to his employees is so onerous he might need to charge thirteen more cents (or around what inflation would naturally increase costs anyway, and who knows how much cheese is going to cost next year, and if there's another drought wheat prices might rise, but, yeah, it's the preventative healthcare) for the terrible, low quality pizza he sells. While Hostess's bakers union had their pension essentially stolen and made salary concessions, the company's CEOs made millions in salaries and bonuses. (Huh, I wonder why it was difficult for the company to make ends meet.) A major component of Walmart's business model is paying their workers as poorly as possible, stopping their hours before benefits would kick in, paying women workers less, helping their employees sign up for welfare, meaning that an essential part of Walmart's business model is getting us tax payers to pay for some of their employees food. (Which is of course, totally all about the free market.) And let's not forget Scott Walker's fiasco, where his republican controlled legislature passed a whole slew of tax cuts for corporations and then tried to essentially destroy public sector unions as a way to solve a deficit problem.

Huh, wonder where all the profits are.
Yet somehow, these owners, and many others in the punditosphere, blame unions for economic problems, even though U.S production has been up while worker wages have stagnated for a couple of decades. The spiked-irony of this idea being that many of these companies wouldn't be possible without the union driven labor movement of the 30s-50s. Much of what our economy looks like now was created through the rise of a strong middle class, driven, in part by the power of unions to extract fair contracts and livable wages from ownership. Disclaimer: Economies are complex, chaotic entities. No one force is responsible for any trend, pattern, or phenomenon. However, though there were many factors that lead to the post-war economic boom (like the war not happening on US soil, for example) I don't think the influence of unions can be denied.

No Unions Equals No Consumer Goods Market: One of the distinctive features of the new middle class was an entire new population with discretionary spending. Millions of Americans could buy stuff they wanted, not just stuff they needed. And, lo, the consumer market was born. This consumer market made much of our current economy possible, everything from the tech boom, to infomercials, to suburban super stores. Without unions helping to drive up average wages, there just wouldn't have been enough discretionary cash spread around the economy to support, say, a personal computer market or a yearly toy market, or, tis the season, the consumerist orgy of contemporary Xmas. No consumer market, no Walmart. No unions, no consumer market.

No Unions No Suburbs: For better or for worse (I'd say for worse, but we didn't know any better then) the higher wages unions earned for their workers allowed for the “White Flight.” Average American families (at least white ones) in average manufacturing jobs, could own their own homes. Three decades earlier, those exact same jobs would most likely have kept those families chained to rental apartments in the city. Not only did these families have more money, but they lived in an entirely different economic environment. Spread out over a much larger geographic area, middle class families found themselves near, well, nothing but other middle class families. A new need arose; on demand delivery. Without the suburbs there really isn't an economic environment for national chain delivery pizza. The convenience of Papa John's is generated by the inconvenience of living five miles from any pizza joint. It's a solution to a problem of the suburbs, rather than an outright benefit. No unions, no suburbs. No suburbs, no Papa Johns.

Unions aren't perfect. Corruption. Abuse of power. Intransigence. But good luck finding a human institution free of these flaws. Somehow, these flaws are evidence of a fundamental flaw in the institution of unions, but when they appear on Wall Street or the corner office, they are result of an individual making a bad decision; one bad apple whose actions, no matter how many times the actions are repeated by other individuals, shouldn't reflect on the institution or system as a whole.

I've actually got this whole thing backwards. What we're seeing now from the ruling business elite isn't new. In fact, it's very old. It is part of a long human tradition of people who happen to be born into positions of wealth and power, for various reasons, feeling contempt, in various degrees, for everyone else. It only feels new now, because, for a whole host of reasons, America took a break from that bullshit for about three decades. It took a few thousand years of general effort and 40ish years of concerted effort in which hundreds of people gave up their lives in the struggle, to get to that point, but we did. During that break, America also became the richest and most economically egalitarian society the world had ever seen and began, finally, to break down some ethnic, racial, and gender based barriers. But then in the 80s everything changed again. There are now corporations for which avoiding the social contract is a basic plank in their business platform and politicians who believe the most basic acts of governing are destructive. I don't know exactly what caused this change, (I mean Milton Friedman, was already arguing for this bullshit while Keynesian economics was working brilliantly.) but there is some evidence, including the influence of the Occupy movement and the liberal swing of the last election, that we are ditching this contempt again. Let's just hope our economy doesn't collapse before we come to our senses.

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