Laboring

Laboring Americans must relearn how to roll cars.

That, strikes, slowdowns, pickets, all sorts of other labor disruptions which further expanded the middle class current and future generations may come to regard as myth. Right up there with Odysseus and King Arthur.

Time to put aside emojis, abbreviations, and acronyms, kids, and start using confrontation. It’s been proven that’s the only language any recalcitrant boss ever understands and eventually, albeit grudgingly, respects.

On this Labor Day 2019, what working American doesn’t comprehend those who actually conjure our Republic’s much ballyhooed wealth are getting shorter and shorter ends of sticks yet suffer greater shafting? Americans work more, harder than we ever have. We produce more in fewer hours. Yet corporate officers and stockholders reap the greediest lions’ shares.

Several years ago, and this only may’ve been hearsay, the truthful kind in order to rouse the dormant, underpaid, underappreciated working rabble, a board member or particularly large investor suggested to his or her fellow burgeoning plutocrats its company’s worker ants receive greater compensation for having earning the entity evermore enormous obscene profits. To which a much less considerate stockholder challenged the other’s notion of just recompense. He or she asked why should any of their lopsided financial gains be diverted to the truly deserving?

Right there encased in the hardest of nutshells imaginable is the state of relations between American post-industrial management and rank & file.

Until business-school mania introduced the prerequisite which eliminated MBA candidates’ humanity, those occupying and aspiring to fill corner offices at least gave occasional figs about those toiling on their behalf. Even the dividend reapers instinctively grasped money, like manure, needed spreading around.

Now, “shareholder value” is the mantra. And who doesn’t know mantras deaden minds?

Of course plenty of these modicums of past concern emerged only after job actions just short of shooting war. Greedy as the heartless bastards running the show were, none were ultimately piggish enough to put another dollar ahead of self-preservation. After all, mollified workers increased production which improved profits that fattened everybody … although some got way fatter than others.

These the sort of lopsided exchanges that engineered worker gratitude, if not altogether “loyalty.”

Those hourly workers who labor in our Republic’s manufacturing fields have commonly been diligent. Fortunately, management generally recognized this. Until recently, the latter bunch often did its utmost to treat the human capital decently.

The emphasis on shareholder value erased the old compact. It tasks management to sacrifice and abuse human capital in order to inflate stock prices. Only a few at the top come out ahead. Multitudes lose.

Before the trickle of American industry going overseas became a deluge, before union membership sunk as well as shrinking collective bargaining, before working people became expendable, an observer could say management and labor adhered to a pact. One that insured profits which satisfied stockholders, enabled working people to lead better lives, enlarged the middle class, and lastly awarded America the deepest, widest prosperity it will apparently ever know.

I can attest to such halcyon times as a witness, beneficiary, and participant.

Father spent 30 years at the long-razed General Motors plant near Quarropas. For most of his career inside there he worked on an assembly line.

Forget the pristine factories of today. Those are showcases of ultra-modern industry consisting of automatons primarily overseen by relatively few humans.

When father clocked in, such an automobile plant would’ve been jammed packed with people amongst machinery amid motion. The clamor of voices vied with the necessary noise of production.

The facility was grimy. In summers it broiled; winters inside were frigid.

Humans affixed every component to the chassis rolling by. Meaning it behooved all involved to perform his or her task correctly first time, every time. Incorrectly installed jobs disturbed efficiency because repairs intruded upon operations farther down the line.

These complications made others’ jobs harder. Difficult as it normally was to build cars, no one consciously made another’s job harder. For without any trouble, the same could be intentionally visited upon habitual screw ups.

I won’t venture claiming those assembly-line workers took pride in their jobs. In father’s three decades there, in the years relatives and friends earned generous GM checks, none of them ever sang praises of that sort to their employer.

What GM assembly-line task wasn’t arduous or numbing? Nevertheless I have no doubt that each hourly employee took pride in final results rolling off the line. A shiny car, one destined for some showroom then garage or driveway in America.

What sweetened that moment? Why, the compensation earned justified the hours demanded, the tasks engaged, the conditions both imposed.

This I know because for two blistering summers I melted in the same factory as father. Different shifts, same facility.

It is said children never really appreciate where money originates. That somehow mommy and daddy leave the home, go somewhere, and return bearing dollars that provide shelter, food, clothing, and most important of all, toys.

Again, to young minds hasn’t the “how” always been immaterial? Only availability mattered.

Me? I learned early money didn’t fall off trees. Whether it a newspaper route – the decline of daily newspapers means future boys and girls will never learn accountability at impressionable ages – or jobs making walking-around pocket cash as summer vacationing junior high/high school teens, who among my cohort didn’t start earning a buck or two early?

GM further educated me. Working there also burnished father in my eyes.

As mentioned before, father fulfilled a career at General Motors. As a younger man he’d tried several jobs elsewhere. All failed suiting him. Until laboring at the plant myself, I never saw him as particularly beyond a “dad.” Moreover, not as especially “tough” in the way pop culture presented the quality.

Then, modesty and discretion weren’t highly valued or recognized traits. They came later in life.

Oh, I knew about father’s upbringing during the Depression in the Jim Crow South. Although proud to acknowledge his World War II service, he concealed his involvement in any gruesome wartime incidents. A listener would think his army years consisted of craps games and dances.

After father died, it was my duty to sort through his possessions. During one of these rummages, I found his discharge papers. Let’s just say these explained his nimble-fingered skills.

The toughness father displayed during wartime, the reserve he demonstrated afterwards as a veteran, will never fit our current popular notions of sturdy character. Today’s inclinations towards self-promotion might’ve offended him, yes, but he would’ve been too wary to have complained about them.

Two summers of getting my ass kicked inside that General Motors plant gave me hints of the man I’d later discover.

At GM, I “floated.” I substituted for absentee assemblers or those on vacation. Foremen routinely assigned me repetitious tasks requiring strength, quickness, and precision.

Sixty chassis an hour traveled down the line. Meaning each station’s assembler had a minute to complete his or her task. Sometimes management sped up the line, reducing the fulfillment window by precious seconds.

Who among us wasn’t drenched, sore, and exhausted by the end of shifts? A lot of senior assemblers suffered aches and strains inflicted by years of repetitious movements. Mandatory overtime surely worsened these maladies.

Nonetheless didn’t our paychecks salve a good many of those pains? Base pay was high. Overtime transformed that into kingly sums. Thank you UAW 664.

Trust me. Along with the benefits attached, every cent was earned.

A lot of others who learned of my summer job invariably disparaged the recompense assembly-line workers received. Somehow in their eyes working people never deserved that much in hourly pay. Some even went as overboard in declaring “closed shops” (a closed shop requires union membership; an open shop allows anyone to work there) subversive, illegal, and naturally, un-American.

Why, yes. Funny you should ask. A lot of people I knew then who never passed Joe Hill 101 do today unquestioningly swallow what Fox News forces down their throats.

About such detractors then, perhaps those boobs believed the components somehow attached themselves to the chassis. Or maybe they imagined the assignments easy, the hours short, our conditions luxurious.

Working there would’ve disabused plenty of outsider misconceptions.

Rife were stories of new hires who failed lasting half a shift before quitting. People I’d grown up alongside in Quarropas, a few of them self-advertising as “tough” at that, wound up unable to hack a single day at GM.

The cumulative six months I gave GM were the hardest I’ve ever worked, will ever work. What in working life has presented tougher challenges than those distant summer hours? That father compiled decades there, uncomplaining, and retired in good health to enjoy a lengthy deserved pension amazes me still.

Today the part that probably sustained father and an incalculable number of GM retirees – lasting until being able to enjoy retirement – is a mirage to the current workforce. It is broken and fading from memory. Future generations of laboring Americans will never know about seeing just wages for honestly performed work. There will be no organizations to bargain for their benefits or redress unjust workplace circumstances.

Longevity that assured profitable production will not receive the backend reward of pensions.

Indeed a pension is a kind of reward. It acknowledges that recipients have given their best, most productive years to enriching others. In return, the pension can be seen as belated grateful recognition, and thanks.

For honest working people, collecting a pension is never a gift. It’s always deserved.

Describing this current era of management-labor relations as a New Gilded Age is apt. What advances and benefits old progressives fought for haven’t been clawed back by management, or erased though “right-to-work states” luring industries from dynamic regions via bottom-feeding offers like coolie wage structures and working conditions akin to indentured servitude, or outright threats to move production abroad if employees don’t submit to coercion, or surrendered through the self-impoverishing rise of the gig economy?

It doesn’t help any that prospective employees seeking work have zero knowledge or prior labor struggles. Their ignorance allows management to impose deleterious working conditions. These also deteriorate lives. Such witlessness welcomes that most grievous sin against working people, lower compensation.

Helpfully and mindlessly abetting the above, gig workers. They toil untethered. They are blissfully estranged from the old notion of equitable pay for labor. Suckered by the swell-sounding though false perceptions of “freedom,” “own boss,” “unstructured hours,” gig workers are blithe about conceding the hard fought rightful advances in American labor.

One needn’t be an especially unscrupulous employer to take advantage of this. It’s obeying human nature.

In being fooled that our technology driven new modes of work provide “independence,” gig workers are forfeiting guarantees and opportunities for protection. Despite our technological whiz-bangs, be assured a character from The Jungle, an essential Gilded Age novel by Upton Sinclair, would recognize the increasing parallels between now and the early 20th century. The 1906 book exposed initial industrial era perfidies against working people, their communities, the whole of then-American society.

The Jungle compelled improvements.

We are regressing.

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