The Value of Work

In these hallowed halls, your rights are slowly slipping away via wikipedia
In these hallowed halls, your rights are slowly slipping away
via wikipedia
Over the past several days I’ve been writing about Gov. Haslam’s decision on Medicaid expansion. While this has been going on, a bill, supported by the Governor, has been steamrolling its way through the state legislature. A bill that would further shift power away from workers and workplace protections by creating new hurdles for people hurt in the workplace.

On Monday, the State Senate passed their version of HB 0194, a bill that would create a new mechanism for workers to receive compensation while hurt on the job, and reduce their rights even if the injury was through no fault of their own.

The bill is currently in the final stages of passage in the State House.

The proposed changes dramatically shifts the burden from employers, who have a duty to provide a safe work environment, to the government and employees.

What’s more, it creates a new special judicial system, administered by the State Dept. of Labor, which was recently reported to have grossly mismanaged the Unemployment Insurance program to the tune of $73m.

You may recall, the head of that department recently stepped down, just days before the announcement of this report, following a trend of Haslam appointees who have resigned due to poor management.

This trend of mismanagement follows another trend of “worker reforms” that began with the limiting of collective bargaining for teachers, among other efforts.

Through the Governor’s support of these bills, he has sought to do what so many other GOP leaders seek, to tilt the balance in favor of business under the rationale that it will be good for workers. This of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Work, an American Value

Workers built America
Workers built America
One of the values that Americans hold dear is the idea that hard work will be rewarded with a certain measure of success.

I think we all understand that not everyone will be Warren Buffett rich, but we have a national expectation that your work will not be in vain. An idea of “merit”, that hard work has value.

This is an idea that starts before our revolutionary beginnings, continued during our early westward expansion, carries its way through the the gilded age, the Great War, Great Depression, WWII and to this very day.

Its an idea expressed in the writings of Horatio Alger through books like Ragged Dick, the story of a poor worker who rose to the Middle Class. Something that was not very easy in the late 1800’s.

Over the years we have romanticized these rags to riches stories. They have become a part of the mythology of America. An oral history that, like most tall tales, has been exaggerated over time.

The stories of early industrialists, like Andrew Carnegie, who started working at age 12, and through the course of many years of hard work and helpful benefactors became a real life example of the mythology of merit.

While there’s no question about Carnegie’s humble beginnings, particularly in comparison to his ultimate wealth, the reality is, without the help of a great many people, who steered him to the right investments, helped him raise capital to build his empire…not to mention some of his more cut-throat practices against investors, labor, and anyone else that stood in his way, he would not have risen to the level of wealth he eventually acquired.

The forgotten reality is that hard work doesn’t necessarily make you rich. It can help make you “not poor”.

Birth of the Middle Class

Home Ownership was the hallmark of the growth of the Middle Class
Home Ownership was the hallmark of the growth of the Middle Class
In the post-WWII era, the combination of increased business regulation, government spending on infrastructure, and compulsory education that began during the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of a robust middle class in America.

I think we like to believe that a large Middle Class has always existed in this country. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If it were so, works like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle wouldn’t have had the impact that they did.

The premise of the book was, at first, derided by the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, who called Sinclair a “hysterical crackpot”. Upon further inspection, Roosevelt’s view of the work evolved, culminating in the first real labor reforms of the 20th century.

In the wake of the Great Depression, which was brought on by wild speculation, among other things, more worker reforms were passed like the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which acknowledged that in wage negotiations, capital had the upper hand. Take it of leave it is not a negotiation. In order to level that playing field, NLRA allowed workers to band together and bargain as a group for the common good.

It is interesting that the rise of the middle class, and unions came hand in hand, though that shouldn’t be surprising. The Treaty of Detroit, one of the first large victories of labor, led the way to workplace reforms that became the standard both in the marketplace, and eventually Federal law.

While there’s no question that the overall economy during the post WWII era (1946-1965) had its ups and downs, overall, people benefitted from the collaboration of labor, capital, and government, as income became more evenly distributed throughout the workforce.

Devaluing Work

Pres. Reagan speaking on the Air Traffic Controller’s strike
via Wikipedia
One of the most stunning contradictions of the past 40 years is the way we have come to revere work while deriding labor. It is a mindset that says that some work is more important than other work.

I have a difficult time with this idea.

From my perspective, the most important work is that which I have no desire to do. Things like trash collection, construction and farming, public safety (police, fire, EMS) or teaching for that matter. These are jobs that are necessary for our society to function, grow, and thrive, but the reality is, no one is getting rich doing any of these things.

You wouldn’t know that to hear some tell it.

In recent years, the push to crush labor has taken many forms. From the first truly successful assault in 1981 with the firing of air traffic controllers to more recent efforts, like those in Wisconsin and Michigan to cripple labor through “right to work” laws.

Full Circle

Wage stagnation has become a feature of the new economy
Wage stagnation has become a feature of the new economy
While the value of work in the American psyche and ideas of merit have gone largely unchanged over the past 40 years, the reality for workers has gone through a massive transformation.

As the chart to the left shows, real wages have remained largely stagnant for workers in the United States since 1989. The reality is, its been going on longer than that.

All the while, the very people who have sought to shift the balance of labor from an equal playing field, to one that places greater importance on “job creators”, have, at the same time, used the rhetoric of bootstraps and hard work to fool voters into believing their ideas are somehow going to benefit them.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

In every measurable way, the effort has resulted in a race to the bottom for average people while a very few benefitted the most.

This is not merit, as most Americans understand it, but a value judgement that puts a wealthy few above those who actually do the things that move our economy along.

It is an injustice, that hasn’t been committed by a few small acts, but a systemic and concerted effort over the years.

That injustice, and the fight against it will be the topic of tomorrow’s post.

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