Labor Day has come to mean many things: an extra day off, summer’s last hurrah, back yard barbecues, and maybe a time to don your purple rabbit fur merkin and seashell bra, grab you hula hoop and head for the Black Rock Desert.
Whatever Labor Day means for most of us, it’s unlikely to mean what it actually means: An official recognition of the contribution of the average American blue-collar worker, upon whose back companies and corporations stood to become successful.
Yes, I may have given that my own twist.
Labor Day became an official federal holiday in 1887, and concurrent with the validation of the value of the American worker was the realization that these workers were essentially slave labor (watch “The Molly Maguires” before you argue with me) and labor unions began forming, recognizing that a lone twig can easily be snapped, but many twigs bound together are sturdy. As labor unions grew stronger, workers were begrudgingly granted a reasonable workday, workplace safety and living wages.
These new workers’ rights nibbled away at profits, however, so corporations did what they always do — passed the expense on to consumers and continued making money. Healthy profits encouraged unions to push for higher wages, and get them. Corporations raised prices to compensate, and so on and so forth, like a snake eating its own tail. As the snake swallows itself, becoming a tighter and tighter circle, you know who gets squeezed in the middle? The consumer. There’s a tipping point. If something becomes too expensive, consumers will either learn to do without or find an alternate product or service.
Enter Walmart. Cleaning up after the economic carnage like a jackal wearing a Halliburton cap.
So, if people aren’t buying your stuff, and the workforce is a bull with its horns down and continually pushing forward, corporate America’s answer was to make their products beyond the reach of the unions.
And lo, outsourcing is born. And a face only Mama Walmart could love.
Because corporations and the people who get filthy rich from them line the pockets of our politicians, the government simply looks the other way. When President Obama spoke about reigning in outsourcing, corporations found a new preemptive loophole: Buy a foreign company, and move the headquarters there. Case in point: Burger King is attempting to buy the Canadian doughnut chain, Tim Hortons, essentially trading its American citizenship for a lower tax bill. Do you think it’s merely coincidence that this occurs in the midst of fast food workers attempting to unionize for higher wages? I don’t.
To be fair, a business has the right to make a profit. Workers have the right to a safe workplace, a reasonable wage (read: you can provide for your family comfortably without having to take a second job), and reasonable hours. Consumers also need to support their families, and the key word again is “comfortably.” The American Dream doesn’t mean that everybody gets to be a millionaire. It means everyone has the opportunity to have good food, safe shelter, clean clothes and a little pocket change for pizza or a movie now and then. This, I think, is the baseline for a blue collar worker — a little life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Comfort! Everything else is just sugar on top.
That said, you can’t live comfortably if you can’t afford anything, and expensive workers mean expensive stuff. Enter outsourcing to save the day, giving us ridiculously cheap computers, televisions, even blue jeans.
Yes, even Levi’s are made somewhere else now. That’s why we can still afford them.
So, let’s recap: Unions shot themselves in the foot by pushing beyond what a company could pay and still make a profit. Corporations shot themselves in the foot by outsourcing their labor and manufacturing, which increased unemployment (less money in consumers’ hands) and poverty (more crime and therefore more expense to both individuals and businesses), and yes, consumers also shot themselves in the foot by buying the cheapest DVD players and baby strollers and cameras they can find, rather than looking for the “Made in the USA” label and spending an extra buck or two.
In other words, we’ve made a huge, colossal mess of things. Working together we’ve completely eroded the American Dream.
Except — corporations still come out smelling like a rose (albeit a plastic one made in Taiwan). The “trickle down” theory preached by St. Ronald Reagan was great in theory, but in practice was a load of ca-ca (plastic, also made in Taiwan). Corporations don’t spread increased wealth to workers or consumers, they just keep working people to death in countries without labor laws, hoarding all that cash and laughing all the way to their Swiss bank accounts. Sure, they’re “job makers” — somewhere else! Corporations will never bring jobs back home until the government makes them, and the government won’t make them because politicians have their dirty little fingers in the corporate pie.
The only tiny hope in correcting the disintegration of the American workforce lies with you and me, the average consumer: Wherever possible, avoid products made outside the U.S. Look at those labels. Compare them. If it costs more but it’s made in America — buy it. I know that’s not always possible. I’m writing this column on an iMac glued together by the tears of some tiny, thin, sad, tired Chinese woman working 16 hour a day. But, wherever possible, I avoid this. I drive a Chevrolet on purpose. My third in a row. On purpose. I wanted a Mazda. I bought a Chevy. USA, USA, USA, people — whenever you can. Every little bit helps.
So, this Labor Day, think about what you purchase. Whenever you can, buy local. Buy American. Save a job. Thumb your nose at corporate greed with one hand, and give a high-five to the average American worker with the other. Alone, we can be snapped. Bound together, we are formidable.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at [email protected]; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com