Monday, September 03, 2007

Laboring Under a Delusion

Millions of hard-working Americans are in the middle of frenzied Labor Day Sale shopping today. Some of us will notice that almost everything we buy was made in China, or some other country that isn’t ours. Some of us will care, many will not. It is not my intention to put down American workers; we’re underpaid, overworked, and function in an employment infrastructure that provides little or no security or support, including a general lack of health insurance and the constant threat that our Social Security will disappear. However, I do want to point out that very few of us classify ourselves as workers. Nobody wants to think of themselves as working class anymore. The term (and its “low-class” implications) has become disreputable. This is very seriously unfortunate, because our failure to identify as workers – at the same time as we struggle just to make ends meet – prevents us from seeing the need to band together, as well as identify with workers around the world. Just as important, we resist recognizing how we have been manipulated into helping to exploit them by relishing rather than questioning ridiculously cheap goods.

There is no such thing as $5 jeans and $7 shoes without the use of abused labor somewhere, here or abroad. A recent New York Times article (“Wages Up in China as Young Workers Grow Scarce,” August 29th) would have us believe that China’s medieval labor conditions are undergoing broad scale change. They are not. In another article, published by The Nation in June (“The Last ‘Competitive Advantage’: Letter From China”), writer Jehangir S. Pocha explained that the “power imbalance between owners and workers in China means that almost 200 million Chinese workers go to bed every night in overcrowded dormitory rooms after having worked eighteen-hour days in Dickensian factories where some employees are literally worked to death. The phenomenon has even added a new word to the Mandarin vocabulary: guolaosi, or overwork death, where fatigued workers fall off their stools bleeding from the ears, nose and anus.”

The other big story is child labor. According to ASHA for Education, a non-profit organization, 246 million children worldwide are child laborers, 127 million of them in the Asia-Pacific region alone. Seventy-three million working children are younger than ten, and 22,000 children die in work related accidents each year. Children are also bought and sold. In India, kids are cheaper than buffalos: the animals can cost as much as $350, while the kids are a Wal-Mart bargain at $12 to $45 apiece.

In many parts of the world independent labor unions are illegal and those who attempt to unionize workers are often beaten, jailed, tortured, even killed. Here at home, some unions still wield some clout, but many are paper tigers. From the time that Ronald Regan decimated the air traffic controllers union in the early 1980s, the labor movement in America has devolved into a dim memory – and not a widely-recalled memory at that. Besides a few old cranky liberals, who still knows about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 young women because most of the sweatshop’s exits were blocked? Who knows that in days gone by, more than 400 Americans were shot or lynched by the powers that be simply for protesting appalling working conditions?

My father was a union man. He spent his working life as a merchant marine, a waiter and wine steward on the great trans-Atlantic liners, and a skycap for TWA. He had been with TWA for 25 years when, in the early 80s (the Reagan era, remember?), TWA fired all of its skycaps, then re-hired only some of them from the smashed-up union at a slim fraction of their salary and benefits. My father’s spirit was broken; he loved TWA, was proud of working for them, believed that this company would do right by him for all his years of service. When he retired in 1988 his pension was just over $92 a month. My mother was a non-unionized office worker for 40 years. She spent the last 17 years of her career with a small publisher, and when she took early retirement at 62 due to ill health, her boss was so pissed off he didn’t even say goodbye. And she had no pension at all. As a poor, non-union writer, I cannot disrespect my family history by not speaking out on this matter.

A disturbing majority of American workers have allowed themselves to labor under the delusion that everything will eventually work out somehow. They cushion their worries and weariness with mad consumerism and fantasies of a star-studded, red-carpet life. They think unions are corrupt (and some of them are) and see no value in the power of collective bargaining. Citizens and undocumented immigrants view each other as the problem, ignoring the downright evil perpetrated by massive corporations that would sooner lay off thousands of employees at a clip and outsource jobs to even more desperate workers overseas than pay Americans a living wage. We’re angry and scared and don’t know what to do with those feelings, so we shop, as if we can pile up our stuff against the door and keep out the boogey-man: poverty. But we’re kidding ourselves. Working Americans will be doomed to ever-increasing hardships unless we wake up to the true source of our difficulties, launch a meaningful, global 21st century labor movement, and demand that our elected officials serve us instead of their own money-grubbing interests. And we have to be willing to pay truly reasonable prices for the products we buy. By this alone, we will be supporting the existence and dignity of workers everywhere. Happy Labor Day.

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