Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, October 13, 2003  

In the discussion of the economy, one element gets precious little attention: labor. Last night 70,000 grocery store workers went on strike in California. At hand is the issue of health care--neither labor nor the grocery store owners want to pay the $1 billion of increased costs (Von's, Ralph's, and Albertson's are the chains in question). An additional pressure, according to management, is non-union stores like Wal-Mart who have far lower labor costs. The stores say they aren't competitive, the unions say their workers can't afford the increase in health care costs.

As always, it's become a battle of perception: which side will successfully paint the other as greedy? If the workers can do it, people will shop at other stores in the area, forcing the supermarkets to lose money and become compliant. If the chains are successful (and their resources are certainly far greater), they'll make the workers look like overpaid ingrates who are willing to endanger the business for their greedy ends. People will continue to shop, and the workers will eventually run out of money and become compliant.

For some reason, Americans generally tilt toward management. Perhaps it's our innately entrepreneurial culture. Or maybe it's because so many workers don't themselves make good money or have benefits and so are resentful--a view management has always exploited. (Although in this case, full-time union workers are making relatively modest incomes--an average of $12-$14 an hour, or $25-$29k; moreover, 80% are not full time.)

Arguing from the labor side, I have two thoughts. The first is that this is business, not public policy. Management tries to make its point by appealing to people's sense of fair play. But there's no fair play in business--its very nature is a transaction of self-interest. So why should labor play by a sense of fair play while management--who certainly look out for themselves before business interests--get stinkin' rich? The argument is patently disengenous. The issue here is power. Unions are hated and opposed by management because they give workers power. In the PR game, the only card management has is the phony fair-play argument.

The second thought is this: if we are innately entrepreneurial, why is it that this impulse only extends to management, not labor. The thing workers sell is their sweat, so why shouldn't they be entreprenuerial in extracting the most for this commodity? It's supply and demand, right? Workers are somehow exempt from advocating for their product?

The biggest problem with labor right now is that so few workers think in terms of their own value. Wal-Mart employees are certainly worth more than nine bucks an hour. But because workers have been beaten down for so long to disrespect their own value, they don't organize or advocate for their rights. If Wal-Mart went union, would the company go out of business? It's an absurd proposition. Two things would happen: prices would go up marginally, and profits would go down marginally. But the reason Wal-Mart's prices are so good in the first place is because the workers are subsidizing them out of their own pay. Wal-Mart wants to continue to make huge profits so management and share-holders continue to get stinking rich--again, a position dependent on the impoverishment of the workers.

Until workers look at their union brethern as standard-bearers for the cause, workers are going to continue to have to work harder for less. The $9-an-hour Wal-Mart checkers shouldn't ask the question "Why should an Albertsons checker get paid four bucks more an hour than me?" Instead, they should ask, "Should employees of national and multi-national corporations earn a living wage?" The answer is obviously yes. The Albertson's checker should earn that living wage, and the Wal-Mart checker should, too.

Don't cross the picket line. Safe to say those companies will land on their feet. The workers might not.

Additional sources:
Nathan Newman
Economists for Dean

posted by Jeff | 8:42 AM |
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