Friday, May 20, 2005

Heroes of Socialist Labor

The work ethic is the most wrathful God in America, and unemployed American workers are condemned to a hell of poverty and insecurity. Unemployment imposes losses of wages and health benefits, diminished future incomes from pensions, Social Security, and individual retirement funds, holes in resumes (which are likely to lower future wages in the event of reemployment), and many other hardships on individual workers. That is unfair. The unemployed who give up looking for jobs and withdraw from the labor force do great service to the employed, by keeping their fellow workers' wages higher than otherwise. Therefore, the unemployed's noble act of solidarity ought to be reciprocated by the employed's.

The mettle of any labor movement is tested by its willingness to fight to make unemployment a pleasurable state of being, through struggles for universal health care, high severance pays, high unemployment benefits for long periods (at least three years, considering business cycles), easy qualification for generous disability benefits, and so on.

The goal of workers under capitalism should be to stay out of the labor market as much as possible: no child labor (no wage labor allowed until children turn 18 -- the only exception being child actors), free public education (from elementary to graduate school), short workdays and weeks, long vacations (three months a year at a minimum), long paid parental leaves (three years at a minimum, with children packed off to free public day care and kindergartens thereafter), unlimited sick leaves, fat pensions, and early retirement (at 50 at the latest).

There ought to be a law that sets the maximum lifetime work hours, as well as the maximum work hours per day, per week, and per year. Those who willfully work -- or make others work -- more than the law allows will be made to stand in a downtown square, wearing a dunce's cap with a scarlet letter S on it, which signifies SCAB. The punishment will be waived upon a televised oath to take more vacations -- or allow workers to take more vacations -- than the law demands.

The idlest worker is awarded a Hero of Socialist Labor medal, designed by the Sandwichman -- "The famous Croix de Flâneur!"

To reorient the US labor movement in such a direction, there must be a sea change in its culture. As productivity goes up, there is a struggle to wage, in order to capture as much productivity gains as possible for the working class. Even organized labor in America understands this. What to do with captured productivity gains, though?

Now, there is a choice to make. "Starting from the same level of productivity and per-capita income as the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, Europe fell behind steadily to a level of barely half in 1950, and then began a rapid catch-up. While Europe’s level of productivity has almost converged, its income per person has leveled off at about three-quarters of America's. How could Europe be so productive yet so poor [sic]? The simple answer is that hours per person in Europe have fallen drastically in the past 40 years, reflecting long vacations, high unemployment, and low labor force participation" (Robert J. Gordon, "Two Centuries of Economic Growth: Europe Chasing the American Frontier," 30 Mar. 2004). High unemployment, low labor force participation, and low per-capita income, however, are not a sign of relative European poverty. It is an index of the European labor movement's strength, successfully keeping more workers out of the labor market, allowing many of the unemployed in Europe to live better than many of the employed in the USA, and having the public sector provide many goods and services (such as health care and higher education) for which Americans must pay fortunes out of their own pockets.

Becoming more like European workers -- working less, consuming more in public, consuming less in private -- is the recipe for labor renaissance in America. Some may argue that the European model is not compatible with free movement of labor across borders. But immigrant workers tend to come with immigrant capitalists and petty producers who create jobs by employing them, so immigration shouldn't be a problem after all, especially if native-born workers keep their birth rate far below the replacement level, as many of them do already, fewer births being more conducive to women's well-being, gender equality, and more leisure for both sexes in any case.

How can we become like European workers? Let's begin by acting in solidarity with unsung working-class heroes -- the unemployed who know they are worth more than what the labor market offers.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Very well written. Along with taking more time off from work, there needs to be a general strike. Nothing short of a general strike will save pensions, social security, union organizing rights and the labor movement as a whole.