I spent Monday, Labor Day, like most people: cooking burgers, relaxing with the family a bit, and worrying what my desk would look like Tuesday morning after a day off. There wasn’t much thought of “those who labor and are heavy laden” amid my heartburn and the advertisements for new mattresses.
But I was raised in a labor town, raised alongside the children of those who toiled for an international company, Alcoa, before it closed its local operations. So laborers are never far from my thoughts.
Though oblivious to it as a child, company versus labor was always hanging over our town, through talk of steelworker strikes and the company’s constant threats of shutting down local operations.
The workers were the underdogs. And in our family, we were taught to: 1. care for those less fortunate, and 2. root for the underdogs.
It is no secret that this country’s middle class was stronger when there was a strong union presence. Study after study has shown that as organization has decreased, wealth has concentrated at the top.
I don’t pretend that no excesses exist on the union side. But neither do I think that examples of Chicago-style union bosses are representative of the true American worker. That sure wasn’t the guys I grew up with.
I also know that the consumer drives demand, and globalization has leveled the playing field, which is not to the domestic workers’ advantage. But certainly we can’t hold up company executives as blameless saints of frugality, which is especially evident today as our income gap grows and workers stumble through the early stages of getting organized again (witness the fast-food workers demanding a rise in the minimum wage).
The Scot Adam Smith is considered the father of modern economics, and he wrote in The Wealth of Nations: “... the rise of wages operates as simple interest does, the rise of profit operates like compound interest. Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the perni- cious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.” Such timeless wisdom in those words, written two and a half centuries ago.
We have been in a period of time where labor is eyed with suspicion. Even in my own industry, one large company, Gannett (owners of USA Today and many other newspapers and television stations), described in a memo the reporters at its numerous outlets as “non-revenue producing units.” One has to marvel at a bean counter’s dispassionate descriptions.
Getting back to my hometown, even though our blue-collar steelworkers opposed their bosses on many issues, they were proud of what they did. They busted their tails pouring hot metal and producing a needed commodity, they supported families, they bought homes and trucks locally, and they donated to local causes. They were proud of the living they made, and they knew their work made the town stronger.
The company’s writing on the wall began to show when the top managers at our local plant began to buy homes in neighboring towns, such as Georgetown or Round Rock. Their investment advisors told them it was a safer bet and those homes could be sold more easily should the bosses decide to close the plant. When the plant did close in 2008, we saw men who had been defined by their jobs, for multi-generations in some cases, suddenly having an identity crisis. Their mortgages and car payments did not stop, though their middle-class wages and benefits did.
Teddy Roosevelt said labor should have a seat at the decision making table. “It is essential that there should be organization of labor. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.” But early in his political career, Roosevelt sided with those who claimed classes did not exist and that monopolies did not hurt wage earners.
Let’s hope over the next few years that our leaders become similarly enlightened and the working man can better his lot and help build up the middle class in this country.
My hometown friends don’t expect a castle. They just want an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labor. firstname.lastname@example.org