This Labor Day, new unions are springing up from Amazon to Starbucks.
“This union maid was wise to the tricks of the company spies
She’d never be fooled by a company stool
She’d always organize the guys
She’d always get her way when she asked for better pay
She’d show her card to the company guard
And this is what she’d say”
“Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union
I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union
Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union
I’m sticking to the union till the day I die.
— Woody Guthrie, “Union Maid”. 1940
The story of the labor movement in the United States is an epic tale of brave heroes and dastardly villains.
Free-market absolutists, adherents to the morality of unrestricted capitalism, fans of the famous Ayn Rand novel “The Fountainhead” forget an important piece of the economic puzzle, they leave out a very important character:
The robber baron.
The robber baron exists, no question about that.
Capitalism and the free market economy have a dark side, everything does. No perfect economic, political, judicial, or government system has yet been devised by anyone. As the economist Thomas Sowell observed: “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.”
All the various systems of government have solved some problems while creating others, some with great success, others less so- see, The Black Book of Communism.
The boons of capitalism, the free market economy and a representative democratic government have included some fairly incredible leaps forward over the past centuries. We have penicillin and the pentium processor; electricity and smart phones.
But there have been unfortunate consequences, too.
The industrialized world’s insatiable appetite for energy and expansion has resulted in the loss of animal and plant habitats worldwide, leading to a massive die-off of species around the world. There has been great disruption and damage to delicate ecosystems; waterways worldwide are choked with single-use plastics.
As economist Brad DeLong recently pointed out in an interview with The Atlantic about his new book, Slouching Towards Utopia: “We may have solved the problem of production; we certainly haven’t solved the problem of distribution, or of utilizing our extraordinary, immense wealth to make us happy and good people.”
Unfortunately, it is also true that no other system- certainly not socialism or communism- has solved the problem of distribution, either. In fact, as anyone who has escaped from a communist country and history can tell you, the government bureaucrats in charge of such systems don’t ever practice what they preach about equitable distribution.
In communist countries, the rich don’t get quite as much richer as they do in capitalist countries; instead, government officials at the top do.
Fidel Castro’s net worth was $900 million dollars at the time of his death. When he died, Venezuela’s late dictator Hugo Chavez left a fortune of one billion dollars. Today, his daughter is worth $4.2 billion.
Besides spreading wealth further, capitalism has another major advantage over communism: In a capitalist country, there are many ways to curb the excesses of the free market; in a communist country, the ruling elite make sure there are fewer and fewer until there are none.
For example, political dissent in China against the Chinese Communist Party is inadvisable at this time, to say the least. Chinese citizens must hope the CCP is doing a good job governing, because to even criticize the government is very dangerous, to say nothing of trying to organize a change in policy or regime.
And the entire country is now the world’s most advanced surveillance state.
In contrast, there are a number of highly effective ways to curb the exploitative excesses of unbridled capitalism in a democracy.
Consider the reason the U.S. has child labor laws: Because we need them.
Without child labor laws, we know- for certain, from history and the current state of the labor situation in some of the poorest countries on earth and some of the wealthiest- young children would still be working in factories and mines, just as they still do in many nations today.
Government regulations are a powerful check against the worst impulses of the would-be robber barons among us. As is the legal system, the democratic process and the free press- though the latter is currently being bankrolled by wealthy corporations and individuals, which is quite a conflict of interest.
Because of the hard work of early union and labor organizers like Eugene Debs, American workers today have rights. They have government organizations specifically dedicated to investigating any complaints they have about working conditions, pay, or anything else.
If employees are hurt on the job due to employer negligence, they can sue.
These new unionizing employees aren’t exactly like their predecessors of yesteryear’s heroic American labor movement.
They aren’t being subjected to unsafe working conditions or harassment by armed Pinkertons. They aren’t even being underpaid, precisely.
They are angry, agitating, and unionizing because the companies they work for are some of the wealthiest interests on the planet, helmed by the 1% of the 1%- people with so much wealth, it can’t even be illustrated with a simple bar graph or pie chart- and they’re still broke.
The piece of the pie chart being enjoyed by the 1% of the 1% is so big, the wealth currently owned by everyone else on earth put together wouldn’t even be visible to the naked eye in comparison.
Amazon, Starbucks, and even REI employees are angry because they are working at companies which could definitely afford to pay them more- much more- and yet don’t.
Worse, many of these companies, their owners and CEOs espouse progressive politics- which, at the very least, should include the ideology of a more equitable distribution of profits.
Organized labor unions, agitators, and squeaky wheels a generation ago produced a major sea change for U.S. employees. Rights, minimum wages, strict labor laws, regulations, and legal recourse are the fruits still being enjoyed by American workers today.
But many still struggle to make ends meet in America, working more than one job, living paycheck to paycheck, always one unexpected expense away from disaster. Meanwhile, the wealth gap has become an unfathomable abyss.
Looking at the globalization explosion of the last few decades with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that some corporations exploited the unregulated, cheap labor and lax environmental laws of emerging nations to enrich themselves and their shareholders.
These exploitative, ill-gotten gains came at the expense of the U.S. middle class as well, hollowing out small and mid-size towns all across the country, stalling wage growth, and ending the golden age of American manufacturing.
In spite of some of the best labor laws in the world, strict regulations governing working conditions, and other benefits negotiated by a generation of brave men and women a generation ago during the height of the U.S. labor movement, employees at some of the wealthiest companies in the world are organizing, forming new unions, striking and making their voices heard.
The reason can be boiled down to two words: Wealth gap.
On the backs of the working-class, the 1% of the 1% have enriched themselves beyond all comprehension.
Workers in 2022 want to be compensated commensurate with the profit margins of the company in which they work; not paid the barest minimum employers think they can get away with.
On a time, executives for many major companies, and indeed employees from top to bottom, were forbidden by company policy to discus or disclose salaries.
This Labor Day, in 2022, those days are long over. It’s the Information Age; employees of any given company know exactly how much their co-workers and bosses are making.
And they know how much money the founders and CEOs of extremely wealthy corporations are making. Knowing your employer could afford to pay you more, and won’t, isn’t sitting well with a generation accustomed to organizing to get what they want.
All told, this next generation of Union Mades may prove even more effective than all the last ones combined.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)