Monday, September 7, 2009

A Year in the Life of Labor

I would be willing to wager that the vast majority of workers had no idea what the unemployment rate was a year ago on Labor Day. It would probably be a safe bet that most of you know now.

Our perception of what labor is has changed greatly in the short space of twelve months as we have watched the financial world shift from one of prosperity to one of uncertainty. This has affected one in ten Americans while shattering the hopes and dreams of the remaining workforce. Retirement goals have been altered. Companies have moved from prosperous thinking to cost-cutting seemingly overnight.

A year later, after the collapse of Bear Stearns and the pratfall that was Lehman Brothers, bailouts and bad investments headlined the news reports. If you had no idea who the head of the Treasury was, the evening news was there to tell you. So much financial information was suddenly dominating the news that it became pornographic: impossible to describe but easy to recognize.

For months, you got up in the morning and went to work, weighed down by the possibility that you might be among the fallen 10%, that you might be forced to take a wage cut or freeze, that your mortgage might not be sustainable and that all of the stability that kept you moving forward was no longer solid footing. But you went anyway. You didn’t need to be told things were bad and possibly getting worse; you simply felt it. It was palpable.

So a year later, as we observe another Labor Day, most of us wonder whether we will ever be the same. Will we ever get back to the days of endless optimism, hope for the future and the possibility that our children will no longer see the anxiety in our eyes?

Capitalists observe Labor Day in a far different way than those employed. Abraham Lincoln once said: "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."

Business disagrees. And labor laws suggest that they have the lobbying power to make those differences greater, in essence creating a far wider schism between who produces and who finances that production.

2009 we will come to find out is the year when the recession has subsided. Yet, the replenishment of those lost jobs may not come for another twelve months. This will be referred to, long after it is over as a jobless recovery. This is an economic reference that flies in the face of what normally occurs. When things begin to turn around, businesses are forced to ramp up production to fill the void in inventories. No one can sell an empty shelf.

But so far, and in all likelihood, in the near future, this will not or has not happened. White-collar workers are seeing work loads increase, sometimes due to attrition (workers retiring or taking buyout options) and layoffs. Unions around the country, particularly those associated with troubled businesses such as autos or publishing have made concessions that during the good times would not even have been considered.

Rest assured, we did not create the situation we are in, despite the reasoning the many employers, economists and financial experts offer to the contrary. Their view of who we are, albeit convoluted, is based on a long history of class struggle, the belief that the poor are poor because of who they are and not what they did, and the fact that the land of opportunity, something all business suggest is applied equally to all workers, is alive and well.

The result of this type of thinking, supported by poorly written histories of labor and the struggles of unions over the last hundred years has deepened the stratification of our economy.

In 1970, the classes and the incomes associated with status in the United States closely resembled those of Canada. In the short space of forty years, the resemblance is more akin to those social classifications of Mexico. This is due in large part to how those in business (lobbying for empathetic support from the government) view the root causes of poverty, the opportunities that this land was supposedly blessed with and the chasm that has grown both in terms of incomes and jobs.

This Labor Day should be celebrated as a turning point. We have a government that is doing what no other administration has ever done in this century. And while the cost is high, the result will be a change in attitude in how labor is viewed by not only the workers but also those that employ us. It may be short in duration, as many financial cycles tend to be. But it will be a lesson worth noting long after 2008 becomes a footnote in the history books.

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