In his June, 2010, CounterPunch interview (which he expands upon in his excellent book “Aftershock”), former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich notes that the challenge facing the American economy isn’t simply to provide jobs, jobs, and more jobs. The challenge will be to provide good jobs.
And after reading the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) latest report, Mr. Reich can’t be too optimistic. According to the BLS, there were 1.1 million private sector jobs gained in the last year, and of those jobs, 650,000 (or about 60-percent) could be categorized as marginal. They are jobs that neither create personal wealth nor offer real benefits.
Sixty-percent of these new jobs went to temporary help, leisure and hospitality, and retail sales. The BLS cites the average rate of packers and packagers as $8.62 per hour. Other than keeping families from starving or living on the street, how are $8.62/hour jobs?not for teenagers still living with their parents, but for heads of households?supposed to help the economy?
There’s a common phrase to describe the phenomenon where low-paying, low-benefit jobs drive out decent, well-paying jobs. That phrase is “lowering the standard of living.” Arguably, those words used to strike fear in the hearts of middle-class workers who believed that a high (if not the very highest) standard of living was more or less an American birth right.
Yet it’s obvious that as the influence of unions has declined, our standard of living has declined right along with it. And why wouldn’t it? With unions weaker and nothing (no government muscle, no media support) to resist the downward pressure on wages, corporations will continue grinding workers down until, in theory, they reach the federal minimum of $7.25/hour (which, no surprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vehemently opposed).
Having once lived and worked in India, I try to keep abreast of Indian labor issues. And one of the more alarming trends in Indian manufacturing these days can be seen in what’s happening in Gurgaon district?a region in the northern Indian state of Haryana that produces the majority of the country’s cars and motorcycles.
Union activists in Haryana (members of the AITUC?All India Trade Union Congress) tell me that companies are resorting to the same greedy, extortion tactics U.S. companies began using in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they tried to squeeze out inferior contracts from unions by threatening to shut down their factories and move to the American South, Asia, or Latin America.
Gurgaon companies are now warning factory workers that if they don’t knock off their union activism, they’ll be forced to pull up stakes and move either to South India (their version of Mississippi and Alabama), or to Bangladesh or Vietnam, where workers are hungrier, wages are lower, and governments are far more accommodating.
Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more swinish or cutthroat, a country like India is in danger of pricing itself out of the manufacturing sector. The irony is staggering. Still resented as poachers?for having lured American jobs to the subcontinent?the Indians are now feeling their own economic pinch as international corporations troll the globe for cheaper labor.
Bangladesh and Vietnam certainly seem like logical targets. They’re poor, hard-working, and eager to attract new industry. But what happens when labor unions gain traction in these two countries? What happens when these Bangladeshi and Vietnamese workers get fed up with the bullshit and demand a larger share of the pie? Answer: “Goodbye, Bangladesh” and “Hello, Somalia.”
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org