Friday, February 25, 2011

Union Thoughts

Been thinking lately about unions and the stuff going on in Wisconsin. So this may be a long, rambling post, a bit all over the place. Sorry, but my head is spinning. I really wish I was in Madison, part of the happenings.

The other day I started asking myself if I really felt the alienation Marx talked about that was inherent to the wage woker. Is my labor being unfairly bought, or is the valuation represented by the wages fair? For the first time, instead of just assuming they were unfair, I began to really consider how I feel, if it really feels like alienation, or if it's more of an intellectual belief.

I started to wonder just who it is that sets these values. Physical labor by and large brings less in wages than non-physical work. Why is that? Now, I'm not only talking about the work of essential services, like garbage collection, farm labor, and the like, which one could argue should be paid far far more given the value of the work; but also work such as wiring for all our fancy electronics-- labor for luxuries, so to speak. Of course, it seems to come down to skilled vs unskilled labor, the latter making the least.

But why should, say, construction laborers, who put astounding amounts of energy into their work make so much less than some guy who maybe just went to school longer, who sits easy in his office, at most exerting mental effort, which can be stressful but is not an equivalent to energy (read: life) expenditure. Yet that guy makes more money (read: energy, i.e. life). This is madness.

I don't see why skill must come into it like it does. Yes, a skilled mason should make more than a guy lugging bricks (and don't give me that bullshit apples-oranges comparison of a doctor to a janitor); but lugging bricks is fucking hard, and he should be compensated well for it, not paid a measly minimum wage which won't support a family and won't allow his work to sustain himself into old age, when his work has ruined his body and he can't continue lugging bricks.

I also don't see why someone who is sitting in a factory somewhere in China, plugging one wire into one port on a chip all fucking day makes a fifty cents an hour (yes, I made that figure up), while the laptop is sold for hundreds of dollars. The laptop is impossible without the guy plugging the wires in, and he's giving his entire life to this task, for the chance to continue eating. Those profits should be shared-- the labor is the essence of the laptop's creation.

So yes, obviously without unions, labor is devaluated continually. The "race to the bottom." They say the market sets the prices, but it's really the "owner" class. They want to make the most money with as little cost to themselves, and sadly labor is counted a cost. They will pay a worker as little as they can get away with. And when the workforce is over-large (high unemployment), they can get away with ever lower wages. It's an interesting fact that wages (and union membership, hmmm...) have declined since the 1970s, while profits have soared. It's also "interesting" to know that the boom and bust cycles of capitalist economies are in many ways created by the elites via interest rates and such, and are not accidents or strictly inherent. 

Power to the People

I consider unions the essence of (healthy) capitalism. I also think the term "collective bargaining" is redundant. Without the collective, there is no bargaining. There is only groveling before the boss, a sort of tyrant of the economic world. You can ask for a raise, but there's no negotiating. You are free to find work elsewhere, but of course all the other factories are paying the same, or less maybe, and you know, you aren't getting any younger. I actually find it amazing that a society that loves to talk about democracy is terrified of democracy in the workplace.

Well, to answer my initial question, which I've been thinking about almost nonstop for days, is yes, I do feel alienation, I do feel used. Here I am, reboxing files from their damaged boxes into new ones at a storage warehouse, helping keep Bank of America's and EMC Mortgage Company's and tons of other banks', lenders', lawyers' and businesses' files neat and clean and safe, knowing they're making millions and I'm here slaving in the dust and fluorescent lighting of a warehouse for a pittance, straining my back and tired on my feet. So, the first thought I had when I saw the seemingly endless rows of file boxes keeps coming back to me: a fire in here would be... amazing to see. Huge. Spectacular. And perhaps even just.

Now, I'm not terribly unhappy at my job. The people are cool there, I get along well with most of them, especially the guy I work closest with, another guy doing reboxing. The boss is cool, and generally stays in his office, so you don't have anyone breathing down your neck, and the work, though boring and mindless isn't terrible; it gives me time to think as I do this repetitive task. I laugh plenty, and, except for Fridays, the days pass quickly enough. It works for now. (and just to be explicit, to avoid idiotic accusations, I would NEVER set fire to the place. Not my style of bucking the system. I'd rather just live a life less ordinary)

Still, it's sad to be wishing for the day to end. I often half-jokingly refer to wage work as selling my life for money, but that's exactly what it is. I'm just waiting for 4 PM and the weekend (the 8 hr day and the weekend, of course, brought to you by unions). I'm wishing my life away. So yeah, I'm alienated. I don't share in any of Bank of America's profits, though I'm indirectly working for them. As a temp, I'm not even a real employee of the corporation I work for. And of course more than half of the employees are temps, a clever way of cutting costs; that is, for paying people less money than they should be getting. When this happens in France, the students and youth fill the streets of the cities with protests; here in America, we just bend over and say "please sir, may I have another."

So yeah, it actually terrifies me to see the unions so under threat. They were built over grueling decades by the actual blood of courageous men and women who would not be taken advantage of. They stood up to the goons and pinkertons, the police and the bosses, and won their right to a decent wage. That's all it was about. All the rhetoric about "greedy unions" is mostly bullshit. They're not being unreasonable, though I admit there is corruption in them. But the idea of unions is sound, and all they want is a proper value for the life-energy they give an employer. The unions are in a weak shape, but it's the main thing standing between us and full on fascism. It's interesting to note that the first people Hitler sent to the concentration camps were unionists. They are a direct threat to corporate control (fascism being just another word for corporatism).

This is one of the biggest issues facing the nation right now. I pray that the public union members in Wisconsin don't fold over; and if they are stripped of their rights to bargain, I hope the outrage persists and that, whether physically or in terms of "the process," they rage against this corporate machine and fight until they win.

...divided we fall

It saddens me to know that if in the end the unions fall, it will require another uphill fight someday down the line to build new ones, and that the people will probably have to suffer in tenements and degrading work in terrible conditions for terrible wages until the fury has built enough. Because that is what is at stake. Think these penny pinching CEO's won't slowly whittle down all the unions' hard fought wins? Watch for the 6 day work week to return, and longer hours, ever fewer and poorer benefits and ever lower wages, worse conditions... it's already started, folks.

What makes me wonder is, who do these corporations think is going to buy their junk when no one has enough money for food or rent or enough clothes to cover their bodies? That is, when the middle class is gone and we're all serfs again.

Of course, the fact of Peak Oil (occurred in 2006, I now read) and the coming end of growth economies may make most of this all moot, as the entire system falls, but that's a whole other post.


  1. Rambling has its place (says The RAMBLING Taoist). ;-)

    I agree with most everything you wrote!!

  2. As far as wage discrepencies go, I don't think there is anything wrong with the fact that some jobs pay more than others. Nor do I think that an unskilled worker should be paid the same as a skilled worker, because if they were, there would be little incentive for getting advanced skills or training.

    There is also nothing wrong with having a low wage job IF it is a liveable wage. That more than anything else I think is the key issue here, providing livable wages for all, not high wages for all.

    There is also a difference between working hard, and working smart. Just because you're burning more calories doesn't mean you are working more efficiently or getting more accomplished. And I don't think inefficiency should ever be rewarded.

    But some jobs suck regardless of the pay. Even if I had the skills there is no amount of money you could pay me to be an insurance agent, a banker, or account, because I would be bored out of my mind in those jobs. Maybe I wouldn't be as grossed out as I would be cleaning toilets, or my back as sore as it would be if I were hauling bricks, but without creativity and passion, all jobs become mindless drudgery to me, regardless of how little or how much they pay.

    So money is not the only factor. High pay does not invariably lead to high job satisfaction. Obviously higher helps, but it's not the only issue.

    Most unskilled jobs suck. That is my experience. Hauling bricks sucks. cleaning toilets sucks. Operating a cash register sucks. And paying a higher wage wouldn't change that fact. The fact that the job sucks and the pay is low, to me is more of an incentive to get more training or seek out something better elsewhere, rather than just seeking better pay for a job that you don't even like.

    I'm assuming your current job is only temporary. Would it really be any less
    mindless if you were getting paid 3 times as much as you currently are?

    I don't really consider a job as being good or bad based on whether the pay is high or low, but more along the lines of whether overall job satisfaction is high or low. More money doesn't always equal more satisfaction, but more education usually puts you in a position where you are more likely to be satified with your job.

    Obviously you need to make a liveable wage, and the minimum wage is barely liveable...but how much do you really need?

    I mean would you really be happy keeping your current job, if by some miracle they offered you $100,000 dollars a year to do what you are currently doing...but the catch is you have to commit to 25 years of service, without a leave of absence, maybe if you're lucky 3 weeks
    vacation a year. Say goodbye to your long distance hikes. Would you do it?

    I wouldn't. 5 years, probably, but twenty, no way. At least knowing that it isn't your dream job, just a temporary gig, gives you the freedom and flexibility to quit your job and travel without any regrets, not to be tied down to one job, to one place, because if you are going to be tied down to one job, wouldn't you like it to be something that you actually enjoy doing, not just for the money?

  3. Apologies for my rambling comment to your rambling post.

    What I mean to say, is that I agree with much of what you say here about the importance of unions and the necessity of making wages more equitable for all, but my point is that it's not just about the money.

    If you're feeling like an alienated and exploited wage slave, the problem isn't just the low wage, the problem is that it's the wrong job...a wrong fit for you temperamentally.

    For myself, working in some sweat shop doing some repetitive task, like pushing wires into a laptop all day, would suck whether I was making 50 cents an hour OR 50 dollars an hour. Some jobs are so bad, so dehumanizing that they are more suited for most factory assembly jobs. But then what would all those factory workers do instead?

    Got to find a suitable replacement job for everybody. Work that really matters, that is personally satisfying, that adds real value to real lives, including the workers themselves. That's the main problem. Not just the low wages, but the lack of meaningful work, the lack of overall job satisfaction.

    Most unskilled jobs suck, not just because of the low wage, but because by there very nature they suck....are horribly unpleasant, where you're just watching clock, can't wait to get out of there. Any job like that isn't going to be made any better with higher pay. Sure you'll appreciate the extra money when you're not there, but back to the daily grind it's the same crap as before.

    If the work truly sucks, if the work is totally backbreaking or mindless drudgery, no amount of pay raises is going to make it not suck.

  4. Cym, I never said unskilled work should be paid the same as skilled. I really hate it when people assume that's my meaning when it obviously isn't. But, those jobs have to be done. Someone has to clean up, someone has to haul the bricks, someone has to pick the oranges. A low wage may be an incentive to improve your situation, but someone is going to move in behind you, because someone has to do it. I'm saying that position should be paid decently, and I'm saying this is what unions have fought for. Actually the whole point is the idea of not just thinking about oneself, but about all the workers: solidarity.

    But I think you're wrong; drudgery is (at least in some ways) more worth it if it pays more. Obviously. You ask any working class person, and see what answer you get. Many of them live check to check. It doesn't take away the boredom, but hey, that's self-discipline, right?

    You're right I wouldn't commit to 25 years of this, without breaks. But let's face it, I'm not very motivated by money or material things, I have other loves, I'm in the minority. Most Americans would. The whole depressing thing about factory jobs being outsourced (or replaced by machines) was the loss of those well-paying-if-tedious jobs. People spent their lives at them, raised their families, etc.

    The fact that so much of the work does lack meaning is the whole reason for the alienation I spoke of. To on top of that be worked like an animal for next to nothing and thrown away when you're used up is fucking wrong, and thank god for the unions who fight it. Yes, the entire system is inhuman and the unions are not a perfect solution, more of a necessary support in a broken system.

  5. I gotta agree with you Brandon. I'd take a boring, drudgery job any day of the week if it paid enough to live on. I spent the last eighteen years doing a job that had more than it's share of stress, required some but not a lot of skill, and only hit $40k that last year. In a one income household, that's still not enough to live on and have medical insurance and retirement savings (neither here).

    Perhaps it's time to seriously consider implementing a maximum wage, and raise the minimum to at least $35-$40k. Yeah, sure, that drives up the cost of everything, but not as much as many would like us to believe.

    I could go on for a while about this, but won't here. Good post, thanks for saying what a lot of us have been thinking for years.

  6. "But I think you're wrong; drudgery is (at least in some ways) more worth it if it pays more. Obviously. You ask any working class person, and see what answer you get.?"

    Actually I'm not wrong, because I speak from actual experience of being a working class terms of pay anyways...low poverty level, always have been...because money is of little importance to me. But I know what it's like to live from check to check. Every thing I wrote in my previous comments is coming from someone who has experienced drudgery...enough to know that if I do not like what I'm doing there is no amount of money that is going to change my opinion of the job.

    But much of my comment was addressed to you Brandon, rather than to working class people in general.

    Of course everyone appreciates a raise, and many people would make a career of drudgery if it paid more, but I do not share the same mentality as many people. Mostly because I'm not money motivated, I'm healthy, and have no interest in marriage/children, owning a house, etc, so when you talk about all these shitty unskilled jobs being paid higher wages, that doesn't really address what I see as a problem of widespread meaningless work, done for no other reason than to make money...but obviously I can only speak for myself.

    Unions protect workers rights, but they neither create or guarantee meaningful work. They assure that you are not overworked or underpaid, but you're still working on that dehumanizing assembly line. They do not change the nature of the work itself, they just a assure that you are fairly compensated for your drudgery. I'm arguing against the drudgery itself.

    If the majority of uneducated Americans want to work in drudgery, so long as they are paid well for it, be my guest, but it is not for me.

    I would rather figure out a way to provide meaningful work for everyone, so that no one has to work in drudgery, no matter how well it pays.

  7. @Thurman

    40,000 a year isn't enough to live on?

    Damn, you're rich compared to me. I've been making it on less than $15,000 a year, for the last ten years. Of course, I've never had health insurance, or owned a car, or owned a home, but I've never been short, or hurting long as I've had steady work.

    It's called frugality. I know it's not for everyone, but I'm a living example that you can live well with little money if you make smart choices, by budgeting your money and cutting out a lot of unnecessary luxuries.

  8. @Cym,
    I would rather figure out a way to provide meaningful work for everyone, so that no one has to work in drudgery..."

    It cannot be done. Somebody has to pick the crops. Somebody has to clean the toilets. Somebody has to wipe the butts of little children and those in nursing homes. Somebody has to stand on the assembly line to do their one little job to produce both the needed and frivolous commodities of life.

    To take just one of these jobs -- farmworkers -- it is hard, repetitive, back breaking work. It certainly IS meaningful as it helps to feed and nourish people the world over, but the work itself is drudgery.

    I suppose you could say that each family should grow their own food, but that still doesn't remove the drudgery element from the equation.

  9. @Rambling Taoist

    I disagree that it can't be done. Meaningful work is in the eye of the beholder. One person's drudgery is another person's pleasure. Some people prefer manual labor, others prefer working with ideas. Some people prefer repetitive work, others prefer more creative work.

    There are personality differences between people, that make people temperamentally suited for different types of work. The key is finding work that is most compatible with your personality, that will be most personally satisfying and meaningful to you.

    I'd like to believe that it is possible for everyone to find meaningful work over time...if they seek it.

    Cleaning toilets sucks, but it has to be done. Though some people don't mind it, over time I suppose they get used to it...and make a career of it. Janitorial work, after all, it's not just cleaning toilets, it's cleaning everything. Some days are better than others. And if a person owned their own janitorial business, or became a freelance carpet cleaner, they might actually like it even more than if they were just an employee toiling away.

    I myself hate assembly work, but I know for a fact that there are people who like it, or at least don't mind doing it, that if they had other options, they would still do it.

    But if a person's hates there job, they should seek something better. Making more money doing something they hate isn't a solution. Unless you don't mind the trade-off, like Thurman said he wouldn't mind it's fine, and that's fine...but that's not what I'm looking for, and I know I'm not the only one.

    I've never been a farmworker, or had to grow all of my food, but have done some vegetable gardening in the past, helped my grandma with her garden, and I liked it, liked being outside, digging in the dirt, can't say I'd want to do it all the time, but I didn't consider it drudgery at all.

    I don't consider all physical labor drudgery. Environment is a major factor, as is the value I give to the work itself, of the value or necessity of the product or service itself.

    I don't mind doing physical labor, as long as I'm not being injured on the job, or contaminated by poisonous chemicals. I would do farm work on a part-time basis, like 4-6 hours a day, if I had that option, if and only if it was organic farming, so that I wouldn't be poisoned on the job.

  10. @Cym

    "I'm healthy, and have no interest in marriage/children, owning a house, etc."

    Good for you, You've obviously never seen my humble rented home, or ridden in the ancient beater I rode around in until last year when I foolishly thought I had a good, secure job and bought something newer and better for the environment. You've also obviously never had to pay child support and try to feed yourself, a spouse, and another child on what's left over. So by the time you divide that 40 by four, I'm probably frugalling my way down the road on a little bit tighter budget than even you are.

    I didn't come here to debate you or anyone else, that ain't my deal, but before you go declaring anyone rich and spouting off about how little you live on you ought to look at a few other factors first. The figure I quoted is based on what anyone who has spent the last 20 - 25 years working at ANY full time job ought to be bringing home. For most of the past 20 I made much less and still supported the same above mentioned dependents.

    If you choose to remain single, childless, etc. fine, but don't hold back by working against the greater good of everyone, after all, one day you might need one of my kids to wipe your ass in the rest home you wind up in.

    @Brandon, this is why I don't comment most places. Sorry for the mess.

  11. @Thurman

    I didn't come to debate you either, but when I hear someone claiming that they are hard up making $40,000 year (way above the poverty level), it sounds ridiculous to me. Of course you're not rich, but ain't exactly poor either.

    I'm not working against the greater good. I'm all for raising the standard of living for all. Raising the minimum wage to a livable wage. And the way I see it 40,000 dollars is a very livable wage, even for a family of four. Did you even read my comments? Where did I give the indication that I am working against the greater good of everyone? That is the exact opposite of my intended meaning.

    Oh and for the record your kids will NEVER have to wipe my ass, as the day that I cannot wipe my own ass is the day I die. I would rather be dead than to go into a nursing home.


    Here's another delectable tidbit that I'm sure you'll all enjoy (sarcasm):

    I'm also of the philosophy that those who cannot afford to provide for a family, shouldn't have one. People who cannot afford to feed their kids shouldn't have any kids. You can save that. Hold me to it. I believe in it strongly. In fact many people wouldn't be poor, if they didn't have a bunch of kids they couldn't really afford to support. Poor family planning is a major cause of poverty. That is a fact.

    If you really are interested in reducing poverty, besides increasing wages, the issue of family planning should also be addressed.

  12. Ah yes, now there's a progressive idea (sarcasm). Allow the rich to have as many children as they can afford and sterilize everyone else. Great way to reduce poverty AND create a "race" of superhuman princes and princesses to lord over the rest of us poor slobs.

  13. Sterilization? Yes I'm all for it. I myself am never having children.

    But if there is correlation between higher intelligence and higher income, rich people tending to at least be more educated, usual favor smaller families.

    Statistics suggest a connection between education and family size, where the more educated a person is the fewer children they tend to have, the less educated they are the more children they tend to have.

  14. @rambling taoist

    Look I'm not claiming only rich people should be allowed to have kids. I don't think a person has to be rich to be financially able to support a family, but if you are barely making ends meet on your own, it's probably a bad time to start a family. Or if you decide to have a family, you keep it small, not large. It's natural. What happens in nature, when an animal has a large litter when food is scarce? Many of that litter die.

    Family planning is a very important issue. I'm not saying people shouldn't be allowed to have any kids at all, even though I think that is a good I idea I'm not forcing that on anyone, but if they are only making minimum wage it's probably a bad idea to have a large family on such a small income; it's not sustainable, and ultimately everybody suffers in the long run as a result of poor family planning, not just the parents and the children, but society overall suffers for it.

    It's just common sense to try to live within your means. If you're poor, keeping your family small, or perhaps not having any children at all, is all a matter of living within your means. To attempt to have a large family, when you can barely support yourself, is attempting to live beyond your means.

    Is pretty goddamn stupid, which is usually why such behavior is most prevalent among the least educated. Which is why it is so vital that government funded family planning services are made widely available to lower income people. I don't think there is anything elitist about it.

  15. I don't consider all physical labor drudgery. Environment is a major factor, as is the value I give to the work itself, of the value or necessity of the product or service itself.

    I don't mind doing physical labor, as long as I'm not being injured on the job, or contaminated by poisonous chemicals.

    ...and thus the need for unions, because employers and owners (in general) don't give those things freely. Cym, I think we're on the same side here. I mean, hey, I didn't mean you were wrong for yourself (or for me, for that matter), but for the general public, who do put plenty of value on money and material things.

    And rightfully so; that's the world we live in, and most of them have or will have families to support. Easy to be free spirited about money when you don't have anyone else to feed. So good for us, but I feel for the workers out there.

    Thurman, don't apologize, I welcome it. Good to hear all kinds of opinions (I kinda like your idea of min and max wages), I just hope we can keep it civil, eh?

  16. My bad. I was in a pissy mood earlier today and should know better than to try to think, much less communicate when I get like that. I'm ordinarily a pretty civil person, but when the funk gets on me I tend to be, well, a bit weirder than my usual weirdness. Thanks to everyone for your tolerance, time to move on.

  17. Yeah I'm sorry for getting way off topic here in the comments.

    The issue is the importance of unions and the need to make wages more equitable for all, which I agree with completely.

    But, like I said, there is more to it than that, there are many other factors contributing to both poverty and job dissatisfaction, than simply low wages. That is what most of my comments here were trying to address, these other factors, but obviously that is a topic for another post...which I should probably just post on my own blog, instead of clogging up your comment space here. Sorry.

    Still I wonder what would really be a fair equitable livable minimum wage? Thurman (sorry don't mean to pick on you) suggested $30,000 or 40,000. That'd be cool, and I know the big corporations could handle it, but wouldn't that put the small business owners out of business?

    That's one thing I've noticed around town, is that ever since the minimum wage increased from $6.00 to $7.25 per hour, many of the businesses around here that paid minimum wage, have responded to the increased wage by cutting hours and hiring fewer people. If the minimum wage doubled, I would think the result would be hiring even fewer people, and jobs would become even more competitive than they currently are, where maybe you'd to have a college degree just to get that job cleaning toilets...because they figure if they got to pay this much money, their going to want to get more bang for their buck, hire someone who will not only clean toilets, but do ten other different jobs too, some more skilled than others.

    Something to think about is all, some food for thought for another post.

    Okay, time to move on.