Monday, November 19, 2012

Workingman's Blues (#2)

In a particularly humorous episode of The Simpsons (“Them, Robot,” Season 23, Episode 17), the wealthy, penny-pinching Mr. Burns fires the entire Springfield Nuclear Power Plant staff and replaces them with robots in order to avoid litigation costs for employee radiation poisoning. “This is the last time I pay the price for the irritating mortality of the human worker,” Burns sneers to Smithers.

They keep Homer on, of course, because, according to Smithers, they will need one human employee to oversee the robots and serve as “a scapegoat in case of a meltdown.” (Homer promptly accepts the job when Mr. Burns assures him he will have a reclining office chair.)

In reality, when workers become a nuisance--by striking against low wages or unjust working conditions, for instance—employers don’t need to turn to futuristic automated staff to run their company. They just shut the place down.
This is precisely how Hostess responded to a nationwide employee strike (which included the factory in Biddeford). The Associated Press reported Friday the snack-maker will liquidate its remaining stores, laying off over 18,000 employees in the process.
Hostess predictably blames the union and the striking workers for the company’s closure. In a memo posted on the company’s website, CEO Gregory F. Rayburn singles out “union wages and pension costs,” as the driving factors in its bankruptcy. What Rayburn does not mention—and the AP story conveniently relegates to the very last paragraph—is the fact that Hostess, maker of such high-fat desserts as Ding Dongs and Twinkies, has fallen out of favor in recent years as Americans increasingly become more health conscious.
Could it be that Hostess was brought down, not by greedy, demanding unions, but by basic supply-and-demand, free-market capitalism? Nah, it’s got to be the unions.
Either way, readers need not waste time worrying about Rayburn and other Hostess executives. They will likely sell off their assets and remain financially set for life. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the bakers who are now unemployed because they had the audacity to demand better pay and working conditions.  
The greatest irony of democracy is our constitutional freedoms of speech and assembly do not extend to the arena we spend the majority of our waking lives: The workplace. Indeed, your office can at best be described as a benevolent dictatorship. (And I have had plenty that were not even all that benevolent.)
As a result, much of the progressive gains of the twentieth century have been aimed at democratizing the workplace. The struggles of early labor organizers lead to common-sense worker protections like the eight-hour work day, weekends off, child labor laws, the minimum wage, collective bargaining agreements and the right to organize. In fact, most of those agitating for these laws were socialists—another bit of irony given the rancorous tone historically illiterate Americans have toward anything remotely resembling the dreaded “S-word.” Like that 30-minute lunch break your boss is legally mandated to give you during a regular work day? You can thank a socialist for that.
Any business—large or small—that cannot afford to pay its employees what they are worth does not deserve to be in operation. This is not a radical statement or something only “fringe” Greens believe. It is basic economic decency and is as American as apple pie.
I quote Abraham Lincoln: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” So much for Ayn Rand’s dismissive view of working stiffs as “parasites,” mooching off the exalted “job creators.”
So why does it seem business is often contemptuous of its own work force? It was not always so. It used to be employers viewed a competent, well-paid workforce as a vital investment in their business. Managers understood a content, appreciated staff was the key to their success. Pay your employees a decent wage, offer them necessary health benefits and treat them with basic human dignity, and they will be happy at their job and increase work production.
But somewhere along the line, profit-driven employers came to view their staff as another burdensome expenditure. Industrialization, globalization and the 2008 economic recession have all contributed to an extremist, almost sociopathic form of corporate capitalism that places profit over human lives. In the current economic climate employers are increasingly selective in their hiring practices because they can afford to be.
In fact, capitalism, by its very nature, necessitates a certain permanent level of unemployment (what Marx termed a “reserve army of labour”). This way, when workers begin agitating for higher wages, managers can promptly point to the hundreds of desperate unemployed, and snidely remind the staff how easily they can all be replaced.
And, as I have pointed out numerous times, business tax rates are in no way related to an employer’s unwillingness to hire an adequate, full-time workforce. The idea that small business owners cannot “afford” to hire people (or, conversely, are forced to lay workers off) in order to “cover” their taxes, is a deliberately misleading right-wing lie. It is in no way grounded in any economic reality.
“Capital is dead labor,” Marx wrote in his 1867 economic treatise, Das Kapital, “which, vampire like, lives only by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks.”
By the conclusion of the aforementioned Simpsons episode, the robots become sentient and rebel against their human, slave-driving masters. Perhaps we should take a page out of their book before we, too, are all replaced by machines.

Join Wal-Mart workers this Friday, Nov. 23 ("Black Friday") when they initiate a nationwide strike on the busiest shopping day of the year. Click here for more information.

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