The Value of Labor

By Jim Goodman

My uncle was a shop steward for Briggs & Stratton in Milwaukee; he introduced me to labor unions. Even as a kid, unions made sense to me: If the company made more profit, the workers should too. In rough times the union made concessions and the workers kept their jobs.

I knew about farmers trying to organize, but we weren’t that good at collective bargaining. The Grange, the National Farmers Organization (NFO) tried, but organizing farmers was always sort of like trying to herd cats. Still, we all need to organize.

Looking at the labor situation from the outside, it is obvious how successful the anti-union forces have been. Wal-Mart, meat packing companies, Coca-Cola have turned the clock back to the union busting days of the 1880s.

The Pinkerton goon squads have been replaced by more sophisticated means of union busting — sowing internal dissent in the unions, legal actions and scapegoating of immigrant laborers, but the results are the same: Universal Declaration of Human Rights be damned.

Anti-union folks, like the Tea Party, accuse immigrants of “taking good American jobs”. What jobs are these immigrants taking that “good Americans” want? Picking two-and-a half tons of tomatoes a day to make minimum wage? Would they like a 10-12-hour shift milking cows or working in a slaughter plant for minimum wage? If so, the United Farm Workers of America are ready to help them.

A steady decline in union membership has paralleled the decline in real wages, standard of living, and social safety nets, not just for union members, but the entire middle class. Corporations simply move production to low wage countries, and reward their CEOs for increasing profits. Made in America? Good luck finding it.

Globalization and bottom line profit always trump the well being of workers. Because economic growth refers only to the amount of goods and services produced, it says nothing about the quality of life of the workers or the population in general — as if they and their labor have no value.

Why dismiss those who do manual labor? Why has the status and economic return of so many jobs been reduced to a point at which only those driven from the the Global South by corporate globalization are desperate enough to accept such degrading wages?

The Wall Street bankers and corporate CEOs who engineered the ongoing economic crash are pretty much universally despised, yet somehow, they are also admired. Their union busting, job outsourcing and speculation on agricultural production, put them at the top of their game, the apex of capitalism and greed and it made them rich (even though it was at our expense). The more workers they drove into poverty, the more they were paid.

The union movement was right, the attempts of farmers to organize for fair prices was right, strikes, walk-outs and wage protests are right. Labor, manual labor, has value, indeed it is the basis of society. Bankers and CEO’s have come by their posh offices, limousines and multi-million dollar salaries on the backs of workers; the laid off union worker, bankrupt farmers and slave laborers around the world.

Unless American workers can figure out how to live on a few dollars a day, the outsourced jobs will not return. Unless we all insist upon, and are willing to pay, a living wage for manual labor, the loss of the middle class, of living wage blue collar jobs will continue. Either we accept the economic system those of privilege have given us, or we reject it and insist that all workers have value and pay them a living wage.

So, to Wall Street, from those of us who work with our hands, who grow your food, who clean your offices, who trim your lawns, who teach your children, who repair your streets and care for you when you are sick, Happy Labor Day!

Some might also wish that you choke on your fat bonuses, but no, we are not quite so devoid of compassion as you. The labor movement, the farmers, the peasants, the slave laborers in your factories still have dignity and know the value of real work, perhaps, something you will never know or understand.

Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wis., and a Food and Society Policy Fellow of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Margot Ford McMillen will be back.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2010

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