Monday, September 2, 2013
Labor Day, 2013
Work is hard. You can't find a profession so well paid and fun that it is without its difficult elements, whether jetting to Paris to pose for fashion photos, tasting beer at a brewery, or watching movies for a living. Or as the great James Thurber put it: "Even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the R.C.A. Building, would pall a little as the days ran on."
Work is also a joy. The flip side of the difficulty is that no task, however menial, repetitious and humble is without its pleasures—I don't think a person could stay at a job they completely hated. That is the realm of slaves and prisoners. I've done my share of menial work, early on—loading boxes in a warehouse, baking biscuits in a restaurant, putting numbered tags on machinery at a large laboratory, and each had its particular joys. The worker-bee-in-the-hive satisfaction of moving through the warehouse bringing the right box to the right bin, the perfect ranks of raw biscuits, like fat beige soldiers, lined up on trays, slid into the oven and off to war. Reaching down for the drill on my belt to affix one more of the 11,000 tags I was charged with applying, like a gunfighter on the draw, or so I imagined.
Perhaps I'm imagining too much—maybe work is an ordeal for many, a necessary grind, the price of living. Maybe lots of people despise working. Though I don't see that. I've talked to countless employees in factories around Chicago, and am always impressed by how glad they are to have their jobs, their sense of dignity, their frequent satisfaction and pride in belonging to something bigger than themselves, and in doing their jobs well.
Labor Day is about more than work, of course, about more than jobs, which sag in Illinois, our unemployment rate well above the national average. It is about the organizations that working men and women had to build to drag themselves up away from the most basic and miserable existence. Unions are on hard times now, almost a dirty word, thanks in part to their own corruption, thanks in larger part to a Big Lie concocted and used against them, slurs that focus only on their shortcomings. The Reagan era calumny that owners all deserve whatever they can grab, no matter how they get it, while workers are lucky to be given whatever crumbs fall to them for their labors.
People forget—and Labor Day is the perfect time to remind them, perhaps the most important government holiday of them all, because its reason for being truly does slip from mind—about all that organized labor has wrought over the years.
An eight hour day. An end to child labor. Safe working conditions. Sick pay. Paid vacations. Maternity leave. All in their time controversial, all in their time a chance for business owners to harrumph and scoff and predict that treating their workers decently will drive them out of business. It didn't.
It's the unions that risk going out of business. They continue on, albeit in weakened form, trying to protect workers from the whims of their employers. I've been a member of a union for 26 years, the Chicago Newspaper Guild unit of the Communications Workers of America. In that time, I've seen its power shrivel, the guild at the Sun-Times dealt a severe, perhaps mortal blow in 2009, when it gave up seniority, defunded its pension system, and took a 15 percent across the board pay-cut so the Sun-Times could be purchased. The sacrifice was made to keep the paper from going out of business, and it worked. The paper continued, while the union kept getting squeezed into a smaller and smaller box. Now we approach a system where the Arianna Huffingtons of the world make millions while shepherding a flock of free labor sheep. How long is that supposed to go on?
We slide gradually back to the system of 100 years ago, where workers fend for themselves, grateful for whatever employers decide to give them and—surprise surprise—employers give them as little as possible. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has 3/4 of the buying value it did 45 years ago. In 1968 the minimum wage was $1.60, or $10.70 in 2013 dollars.
Yes, realities have changed, the two great gears grinding American jobs are technology and internationalization. There are few industries that computers haven't revolutionized—read cost workers their jobs—from banking to law, manufacturing to music, and of course, my own industry, journalism. We don't need people to answer phones, pump gas, write stories.
And competition from abroad grows stronger every year—the phone bank jobs that used to be down the street are now in Mumbai.
You can't fight technology. Technology wins. If history teaches us anything, it is the Luddites attacking the looms are wrong and doomed. But workers can still use technology to their benefit, accept their losses, reassemble, and come out stronger, the piecework weavers becoming the United Garment Workers.
Those trends can't be fought, they must be coped with. It helps if workers don't lay down, don't accept the notion that they don't deserve the fruits of their efforts. It helps to remember the joy of work, to try to adapt and to attempt new things, even if it means, oh, writing a free blog for a while, to see where it goes.
These economic trends run in cycles, the economy strays in one direction until people here can't stand it any more and agitate for change, then it slowly swings back in another direction. The American middle class lopes along, suffering indignity after indignity, while their bosses grow richer and more distant and politics becomes more petty and paralyzed.
I have no idea what's ahead for labor in America–nobody does. But I do know there is a proud tradition of union organization, that it had a central role in providing us with the decent society we enjoy and are trying to hold onto, and that organization will be crucial if America is to remain a place where regular people can work and be rewarded. Working men and women are all too aware of how steadily the hard won victories of the past are being lost. We have to do what we can to remain strong, keep our spirits up, and remember both where we came from and where we want to go.