You Are Labor!
*Farm Fresh Media Staff Writer
When we really talk frankly about our freedoms as Americans, we run into some pretty tricky semantic problems.
One of the absolute worst ones is trying to talk about the interests of labor in an age where people don’t really understand what it means to stick up for workers!
As Americans, many of us are woefully unaware of how our own economic interests work, and how we could improve our quality of life and fight for more autonomy and control over our communities.
The point that is imperative to get across is that if you are working, you represent labor. If you have a 9-to-5 job, or even something with more flexible hours, where you actually create things or manage things, or work in our practical economy in any way – that’s labor!
But who’s not ‘labor,’ you might ask?
If you run a hedge fund a make a million dollar salary – if you are the heir of a ketchup conglomerate who organizes flowerbeds all day – if you are a rockstar who spends most of your time getting high, or a sports magnate who gets most of your money from endorsements, you’re not labor. Let’s not forget the defense industry shareholder who never laid a hand on a warhead’s cold metal shell, and the real estate speculator who never had to so much as change a light bulb. Overwhelmingly, the rest of us represent labor by our vacations and our work – by selling our skills on the labor market.
What we have, though, is this funhouse mirror distortion of ourselves and others largely spurred on by our inaccurate visions of labor unionization. If you want to understand why you don’t have more power at your job, you have to understand unions in a real way, not just discard them for being “too expensive.”
Union Rates in America
First of all, not many of us know that many of America’s workers are still unionized.
Just a few years ago, labor union rates among all American workers were around 10% to 15%. That’s a lot – it represents many millions of unionized members of the workforce.
We can tick off some pretty prominent unionized vocations like police officers and school teachers. Other unions are less noticeable, but still there. The public sector share of unionized workers is greater than in the private sector – but you probably knew that already.
We also have a serious distortion when it comes to our intuition of how much union workers make.
According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, a typical union worker in 2014 may have made around $1000, while a nonunion worker took home around $800. That’s hardly the 3-4X increase that many of us believe comes with a union card.
We’re used to thinking of union workers as auto manufacturer employees who earn incredible wages plus pensions, while the rest of us eke it out around minimum wage or $10-$15 an hour.
However, many of those people subsisting on non-living wages, or even going up into the professional pay scale, really wish they were union. They can’t get unionize because their employers have been able to shut down unionization efforts. And they’ve been able to shut down those efforts because of the public’s vehement anti-union sentiment. It’s okay to not like the fact that an auto worker makes $30 more an hour than you do – but that’s not really what we’re talking about it all. It’s time for all of us to get serious about advancing the rights of labor and stop looking at unionization as the fundamental point, since it’s really a red herring.
Here’s the reality: over the past thirty years, wages have gone DOWN when adjusted for inflation and cost of living. Hard physical work and even good creative and cognitive work has been devalued – “capital gains” and parasitic investment has been championed – and the shareholders take the cake from the worker’s mouth!
The Changing Face of Labor in America
We’ve also quickly renovated our economy from the days when ‘labor’ meant factory workers to today, where all of us 9-to-5ers really start to resemble worker groups that dearly need unionization.
All of the national controversy at a federal, state and local level over minimum wages really just illustrates this need for labor to really be represented at the table.
To explain, let’s check out an expert’s definition of working class, and how that’s changed over the years.
“Social scientists use 3 common methods to define class—by occupation, income, or education—and there is really no consensus about the ‘right’ way to do it,” writes Tamara Draut at demos.org in a detailed examination of labor in America titled: “Understanding the Working Class.” “Michael Zweig, a leading scholar in working-class studies, defines the working class as “people who, when they go to work or when they act as citizens, have comparatively little power or authority. They are the people who do their jobs under more or less close supervision, who have little control over the pace or the content of their work, who aren’t the boss of anyone.”
However all of these are abundantly vague. First, a salary is different in one part of the country, and differently stacked against cost of living, than it is in another. Education is also tricky:
“The downside of using education to define the working class,” Draut writes, “is that education is not a perfect proxy for establishing the power or autonomy one has in the workplace or society—the traditional definition of class. There are definitely well-educated workers who hold menial jobs or jobs that pay low wages, just as there are less well-educated workers who have jobs with great autonomy or power.”
Another way to say this is that while those who don’t have college degrees are often shortchanged and relegated to menial and low-paid work, many of those with college degrees end up taking those same jobs, because they can’t find anything better. The bachelor’s degree is certainly not the golden ticket that it used to be. Neither is a master’s degree, as employers often value practical skill over continued education. That is, unless you’re in one of those professional groups, many of which are already unionized or in some way represented specially with merit-based protocols.
Let’s get a little less technical and go back to the main point – if you have a job, if you work each day at some defining occupation, you represent the interests of labor, and labor’s interests are your interests!
Think about who your top boss is. Not the middle manager or supervisor who might hover right over you, but the person who is at the top of your company or organization.
That person has his or her own interests – which often involve maximizing value to shareholders, creating efficiencies and ultimately, decreasing your pay and your rights. So many of those who consider themselves ‘blue-collar’ or ‘working-class’ run into the arms of the far right that these oligarchs and top brass can keep doing whatever they want to labor.
It’s such painful irony that those values of hard work and contributions so valued by the cultural center right are abused and misused by hard right vultures in positions of power – legislators, lobbyists, state and federal officials, hedge fund managers, stockbrokers, bankers and others who wield the million dollar pen. There’s a reason that the term 99% grew out of the last decade’s economic analysis – if you are in the 99% – you are labor. Start acting like it.