by Barry Edelson


The Intolerable Enormity

For citizens and workers alike, rights aren't
given, they are taken


My very first paid job, at the age of 10 or 11, was delivering the Pennysaver in my local neighborhood. For those who live in others parts of the country and are unfamiliar with this ubiquitous feature of suburban life, the Pennysaver is a weekly publication filled with classified advertisements and printed, cheaply, on newsprint. If memory serves, my route consisted of about 300 homes. The papers were delivered to my house every week in stacks, then each notebook-sized paper had to be folded and stuffed into a plastic bag, a process that left my hands black as coal and seemed to take hours, and probably did. The publisher did not want the papers merely tossed onto driveways, so delivery required dismounting from my bicycle at every house and hanging the bag, which had holes at the open end, on the knob of every front door. This was not only absurdly time-consuming, it also demanded some resourcefulness, because not every house had an easily accessible doorknob. There were yards patrolled by dogs, locked screen doors with nowhere to hang the paper, walkways thick with thorny bushes. The sheer volume of papers meant that the delivery had to be done in several batches, and they had to be done in one day, so that with whatever conscientiousness one may have begun the enterprise, there wasn't much of it left by the end of a long, hot, muggy, summer day. A good many of those papers ended up on driveways.

True to its name, the Pennysaver's meager compensation for this effort was a penny and a half a paper, which amounted to about four and a half dollars a week for my route. In those days, that would have bought perhaps two visits to the movies, including popcorn. For the whole summer, I made less than 40 dollars. Even as a child, it just didn't seem worth it, and I felt that I was being taken advantage of. I was even reprimanded once for not hanging all my papers on doorknobs, as the publisher evidently sent people out to check up on us (who, in their cars, could have delivered the papers in a fraction of the time). The job lasted exactly one summer vacation, and that was that.

That job certainly didn't do me any harm, except perhaps to any youthful illusions I may have had about the nature of work. The experience was, in fact, my first direct lesson in management-labor relations. As an individual, it was painfully obviously that you were powerless to change the terms of employment. Of course, if you don't want a particular job, you can do something else. However, through a subsequent series of typical, low-paying jobs in my early years — busing tables in restaurants, cleaning houses, shelving books in the college library — it became abundantly clear that "something else" was more or less the same as everything else. You had a choice, if you were lucky enough to live in prosperous times, among a variety of tedious and mind-numbing jobs, but in none of them did you have any say whatsoever in the work itself or in how much you got paid. It was take it or leave it.

Thus, in miniature, we have the history of labor.

It is also an illustration of the unwritten devil's bargain of capitalism. The employer is free to hire and fire at will, in exchange for which the worker is free to sell his services wherever he chooses. That's the theory, in any case. In reality, the annals of labor comprise a litany of abuse, from miners trapped as debtor-slaves and slowly asphyxiated by coal dust, to women locked in stifling sweatshops with no escape even from fire, to children whose small, tender limbs are useful for the maintenance of a factory's steel machinery, in whose gyrating jaws they often lose them. In some cases, a worker could indeed offer his services to a different factory, but conditions there were hardly likely to be an improvement over any other. This may seem like ancient history in America, but most of the clothing you are wearing at this very moment, and most of the home furnishings within your field of vision, were manufactured in parts of the "developing" world in conditions little better than those suffered by our forebears only two or three generations ago. Even in this country today, workplace conditions for many of the working poor are appalling by standards of the average middle-class office worker. Read Barbara Ehrenreich's first-hand account of low-wage employment in Nickeled and Dimed if you want to learn about how infrequently the employees at Wal-Mart are permitted to use the bathroom. The flaunting of labor laws is routine across a range of industries, from the denial of overtime pay to the skirting of safety regulations.

On to Wisconsin

When President Obama spoke to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a week ago, he exhorted businessmen not to hoard all of the profits that will be gained from an economic recovery among a few top executives, but to share the bounty with all of their employees. Who exactly is going to make them do this? We have been confronted for years with an abundance of evidence that income inequality has grown dramatically in the last 30 years, with fewer and fewer Americans reaping more and more of the benefits of economic growth. With corporate profits and stock prices rising even at a time of high unemployment, we hardly need convincing that the well-being of workers is a low priority for both companies and governments. We flatter ourselves to imagine that we still live in a meritocracy. In truth, the children of the educated and well-off are increasingly likely to continue to be educated and well-off, while children of the poor and working class are far more likely to attend terrible schools and find their options in life severely limited by circumstances not of their own making. It is not a coincidence that the decline of the middle class, which, for the better part of a century, had been a springboard to higher achievement and financial success for countless tens of millions of its children, has paralleled the decline in the fortunes of the labor movement.

The reason the teachers, fire fighters, police officers and other government workers, who are currently mounting an insurrection against the governor and legislature in Wisconsin, enjoy higher pay, better benefits and superior working conditions compared to their counterparts in earlier times and in other places, is because they have long been organized against exploitation. Without the countervailing pressure from below, those who run the nation's industries from on high will take as much of the profit as they can for themselves. That is only natural. It is also only natural for people who are barely getting by to rebel against such a system. The United States has experienced many rebellions of the working poor, starting even before the ink was dry on the founding documents. The labor movement of the late 19th and 20th century was the culmination of a very long, arduous and frequently deadly process.

Unionism has in many respects been a victim of its own success. The rise of the middle class in the 20th century, fueled largely by union wages and benefits, not only enabled vast numbers of Americans to enjoy a better life and to elevate their children to a higher station, it also helped to enshrine into law what most of us now take for granted as "normal" working conditions. It also pushed so many people into higher levels of work, where organized labor simply holds no sway, that it has depleted the rank and file. In these respects, unions have outlived their usefulness and have come to be considered as harmful vestiges of a lost age.

Moreover, many unions grew fat and, like all humans and their institutions, were corrupted by their own power. This is not, however, an argument for their dissolution, any more than corrupt politicians are an argument for ending democracy. If anything, labor activism is called for now more than at any time in the last half century. Anyone who believes that Wisconsin's campaign to delegitimize and weaken the public sector unions won't lead to serious and widespread abuse of government employees, is either ignorant of history or simply delusional. The elimination of seniority rights, for example, will inexorably lead to the laying off of the highest paid public workers whenever times get tough, just as in the non-union corporate world, where the jettisoning of long-serving employees who are within reach of retirement is a time-honored practice. This is not hysteria or surmise; this is what actually happens every day all over the world when there is no check against the power of bosses, when people in positions of authority are allowed to do whatever they want.

In every negotiation, each side tries to get as much as it can from the other. So why are unions routinely singled out for doing exactly what businessmen do in every transaction they undertake for their companies — using whatever leverage they have to gain as great a competitive advantage as they can? Instead of criticizing unionized workers for having better pay and benefits than non-unionized workers, we should all be fighting together to get the same higher pay and benefits for everyone. This will not automatically destroy profits and reduce competitiveness, as detractors always argue. How can that unsubstantiated view be reconciled with the American expansion of the 1950s and 60s, when the nation's industries brought more prosperity to more people than in any other period — and when union membership was also at its highest level? What we're talking about is not robbing executives of their stock bonuses, but a more finely balanced system in which the fruits of capitalism are distributed more widely among the people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

If this sounds like "socialism", consider the alternatives. Arnold Toynbee wrote, "The maldistribution of private property through the impact of Industrialism would be an intolerable enormity if not effectively mitigated by social services and high taxation." The redistribution of wealth, in his analysis, is the only way to avoid violent revolution, which typically results in a system which is no more fair or just than the one it replaced, and frequently comes at the cost of horrible bloodshed. The American Constitution contains not a single word about what kind of economic system the country is supposed to have. The terms "capitalism", "company", "corporation", "industry" and "free enterprise" are nowhere to be found. And yet, there are those who have come to believe that anything other than unfettered capitalism is un-American and an affront to the founding fathers. This is a false reading of history and the Constitution, and utterly self-defeating for any other than the very wealthiest among us.

It may seem ridiculous, even disrespectful, to compare the labor unrest in Wisconsin, Ohio and several other states with the rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, whose citizens have had hardly any rights at all. But in one respect the situations are exactly the same: no one surrenders wealth or power unless compelled to do so by force of will, or force of arms. Not King George III, not the potentates of Arabia, not the state governments or corporations of the United States. It is probably just a coincidence that both the people of the Middle East and the workers of the Midwest are awakening at the same time to the reality that they will have only those rights that they demand for themselves. Rights and freedoms are not gifts for the powerful to bestow. They belong to all of us, and we have to stand up and take them.

February 19, 2011


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