Labor: The Pit and the Pendulum

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Labor DayThere’s a holiday coming up. It’s…it’s…30% Off at Penny’s Day? Um, how about Toyota Salebration Marathon Day? No, that’s not right. Small Business Entrepreneur Day? Damn! That’s what happens in July. It’s that holiday about working folk. CEO Bonus Week? Unemployment Office Stand-in-Line Day? Nah, ooo, ooo, it’s right on the tip of my tongue…Labor Day!

As with most things in this country we’re divided over how we should treat American workers. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker‘s opinion is that union members are loathsome tax suckers personally bent on ruining the Beer and Cheese State. Maine Gov. and art critic Paul LePage would agree. I mean how cheeky can those labor people be to have painted a mural praising labor on the wall of the Labor Department?

Labor on the other hand claims a sort of worker sainthood. They got you 5-day X 40-hour weeks, child labor laws, safe working conditions, benefits, and a day’s wages worth a day’s pay.  Of course, they’ve also tolerated corruption (can you say Jimmy “The Home Plate” Hoffa?) featherbedding, and defending workers who showed up for work drunker than hootie owls.

Mother Teresa Was a Union Member
Like most relationships, there are two stories – both only partially right. It’s that imbalance that creates a pendulum swing not unlike our government’s.

At the turn of the 20th century, unions rose to power on the backs of workers with legitimate gripes. They were fed up with robber barons who considered them low-cost machines with extremely lucrative depreciation.

It didn’t matter that coal miners died young in a pool of lung tissue and blood. Sixteen hour workdays were good for people. It made them tough. After all, openings by death or illness were easy to fill with unemployed men eager to trade their lives for food and a roof – even if the company charged exorbitant rent for a company house and forced workers to buy groceries at the over-priced company store. Paying in scrip is handy like that.

When union power peaked in the 1950s, companies found themselves under the boot of unions. Unions demanded unsustainable wages and work rules so nit-picky that factories would shut down if they were followed to the letter. Those demands were extremely damaging to companies and only accelerated layoffs and further pay concessions.

The Pit and the Pendulum
However, the pendulum may be swinging back toward unions as many core, hard-fought benefits erode.

Wage cuts are popular these days and work-rule concessions, perks, and higher benefit costs only result in jobs flying off to the wage-slave country du jour. After years of Japanese dominance, Indonesia and India are popular these days. However, wages are already getting high enough in India to drive the work to some other low-cost leader country. And let’s not forget sky-high “performance” pay for  the suits whether the company goes up, sideways, or down into a smoking pit.

America is in a bad place. We got here from corporate malfeasance, government collusion, and unions making unreasonable demands. The solution is neither small government nor big government, over-regulation nor under-regulation, over-taxation nor under-taxation. It’s our ability to see the sharp-bladed pendulum sweep past all our throats, already peeling the first layer of our national skin.

Watch out! Here it comes again!

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