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

Wednesday, April 28, 2004  

Labor Blogging (2)

Note: my crack team of post-posting editors has noted a number of embarrasing inaccuracies in this piece. Corrections follow.

So, we've got subcontracting and Wall Street on the table. And with them, a couple questions--"How do we help people understand the connection between the problems created by subcontracting and ... their lives?" (subcontracting), and "What kinds of creative ideas should we consider?" (Wall Street). What fantastically insightful commentary do I have to add to this?

Well, as is my usual wont, I'm going play the big picture card (when you don't know anything, it's the way to go). There is an inherent problem with labor issues--they're individual. Why should I give a damn about your job? Even where people have the same job, only rarely do they muster the organization to come together and bargain collectively. So when you talk about issues as large and distant as Wall Street and subcontracting, you're talking to seriously glazed eyes.

My input here is that workers--check that, Americans (exceptions noted below)--need to begin to think of their jobs as integrated. Businesspeople do this brilliantly. When Alan Greenspan raises his eyebrow (even if the cause is a housefly), markets rise and fall. When gas prices go up, Wall Street falls. And so on. Business watchers have made an entire voodoo science of predictions based on interconnectivity. Even when they draw the wrong conclusions (see bubble, tech market), it's not for failing to see the interconnectivity of their world.

Workers, on the other hand, tend to see their own labor as unconnected to anything else. But if we're going to talk about the Wal-Martization of the economy, we must understand how one thing affects the next. The LA Times did a series on Wal-Mart that should have won them a Pulitzer. It was magnificent. For everyone interested in SEIU's point, go read it now. Every word. You'll thank me later.

How does Wal-Mart affect your job? Here's how. First, they relentlessly force their vendors to lower prices. When the vendor begins to lose money, they switch vendors.

The fan was made 1,700 miles away in Chicago at Lakewood Engineering & Manufacturing Co. A decade ago, the same fan carried a $20 price tag.

But that wasn't low enough for Wal-Mart. So Lakewood owner Carl Krauss cut costs at every turn. He automated production at the red-brick factory built by his grandfather on the city's West Side. Where it once took 22 people to put together a product, it now takes seven. Krauss also badgered his suppliers to knock down their prices for parts.

In 2000, he took the hardest step of all: He opened a factory in Shenzhen, China, where workers earn 25 cents an hour, compared with $13 in Chicago. About 40% of his products now are made in China, including most heaters and desktop fans. The Miraflors' box fan was assembled in Chicago, but its electronic guts were imported.

Once American vendors can no longer produce the products cheaply enough--even when the parts are manufactured abroad, Wal-Mart move overseas.

The company's size and obsession with shaving costs have made it a global economic force. Its decisions affect wages, working conditions and manufacturing practices ? even the price of a yard of denim ? around the world.

From its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., the company has established a network of 10,000 suppliers and constantly pressures them to lower their prices. At the same time, Wal-Mart buyers continually search the globe for still-cheaper sources of supply. The competition pits vendor against vendor, country against country.

This ensures that Wal-Mart can continue to lower prices. Next, it uses these incredibly low prices to drive out other retailers. They can't compete with Wal-Mart because they don't buy in the same volume and can't shave their prices as low. And finally, they affect market economics not just in America, but globally. The value of human labor to produce these incredibly cheap products goes down everywhere. When that happens there's a ripple effect throughout the economy--just like the ones that ripple through Wall Street--that drives the price of labor lower.

The solution in the big picture sense is for workers to regard their own labor as the engine of profitability--not its barrier. We need to begin to see all jobs as integrated. A couple of weeks ago, we had a liberal vision rountable, and Max Sawicky addressed this topic directly:

My fundamental organizing principle is class.... To me the working class is not a group of people. It's a role. There are those who play productive roles (will play, did play, or would play if not for physical adversities), and those who leach off the rest of us. Society progresses as the productive process expands, coincident with the human development of all. Universal human development is the condition of freedom. All would eventually join the working class, if conditions made alternative roles of moochery and scumbaggery impossible to maintain.

Reagan was sort of right about one thing--a rising tide lifts all boats. He was just looking at the problem through the wrong end of the telescope. The tide that rises isn't the "moochers"--those to whom Bush gave tax cuts--but the workers. We're all little drops in that ocean.

[Corrections. The LA Times apparently did win a Pulitzer for that wonderful Wal-Mart piece. It's also apparently not online. It was not Reagan, speaking cynically, who made the tide-rising quote. It was JFK. (I've spent too much time listening to Bush Doublespeak--now I'm crediting conservatives with liberal quotes.) Boy, do I need an editor!]

posted by Jeff | 12:26 PM |
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