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Chain Gang:  Tightening the Screws on our Global Labor Force, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Sep

The economics of industrialized countries would collapse if women didn’t do the work they do for free. Naomi Wolf

What you’ve got is a huge number of idle hands, a vast amount of work that ought to be done, and an economic system that is incapable of putting those two things together.  Noam Chomsky

Labor history was pornography of a sort in those days, and even more so in these days. In public schools and in the homes of nice people it was and remains pretty much taboo to tell tales of labor’s sufferings. Kurt Vonnegut

When capital has more freedom than people, serious democratic deficits are guaranteed.  Patrick Iber

This is Labor Day weekend in the US, a time when we “celebrate” workers by giving those who punch a clock for a living or provide “services” within our dangerously unbalanced economy a few hours of relief from their relative monotony and powerlessness.  For the UN community in New York, this might be another occasion to contemplate the many challenges that affect global labor, including new threats to remittances, the “unwelcome mats” laid out for more and more economic migrants, the physical and emotional abuses faced by domestic workers, and the employment crunch that could gravely impact this current, largest-ever generation of young people.

We have only begun to wake up to these and related challenges. Indeed, we are living through a time of vast and logistically-complex consumer options coupled with limited consumer regard for the sometimes cruel and unjust origins of the products we use, the toll inflicted on so many of the people who have little options other than to fuel our lifestyles.  Too many of us in the “developed” world have sanctified the relationship between our wallets and the objects of our desire.  Too many of us have given in to the notion that we are consumers first and foremost;  and we un-apologetically employ the tools of our privilege, including elite connections and educational institutions, to enhance our “competitive advantage” in the marketplace — thereby ensuring that the growing inequalities that marginalize many millions of working people worldwide won’t take a bite out of our own pre- and post-retirement options.

Like many others of my advancing age, I grew up in a family where people made a living by performing tasks such as climbing telephone poles and selling ball bearings once their military service had concluded. Our neighbors didn’t necessarily want to do those jobs themselves, but they wanted their phone lines to survive wind storms and they wanted the products they used around their homes to be functionally effective and dependable.   And, for better or worse, they knew at a personal level many of the people who were making those contributions.  They knew more than we generally know now about the skills and values of their neighbors, the ones they liked and the ones they didn’t.  Folks knew who to call when the milk deliveries were late or the sink was clogged.  There might have been a minimum of consumer “bling” in those times, but economic activity maintained a decidedly human face.

One of the reasons why the labor of my more immediate forebears maintained dimensions of dignity is the scale at which such labor was offered.   As most politics is local, to cite the cliché, most economics was “municipal.”   Even as large (and sometimes exploitative) corporate entities were consolidating and streamlining their authority, people could still work out their “service” problems and interests face to face.   Moreover, people could still bargain to maintain and even enhance their collective interests.  Most folks who I grew up with still found their corporate employers dependable and fair enough, partners more than “masters.” This was due in part to the ability of government at that time to facilitate discussions that often resulted in reasonable levels of both corporate profit and labor loyalty.  Such loyalty might not result in affluence, but it generally guaranteed that children could be clothed, fed and educated and maybe, just maybe, able to find a different destiny.  It wasn’t always pleasant, of course, but neither was it the relentless dead-end that characterizes so many of our modern employment options at many points on the production and consumption chain.

The municipal model had its limitations, many of which became apparent as people embraced consumerist identities that privileged standardization and predictability of the consumer experience.   Such “expectations” went hand in hand with an increasing number of top-down corporate regulations that communicated to workers that their only job is to enact company policy, not enrich or critique it.   And while enacting policy about which the “experiences” of workers were of less and less practical relevance, the stability and organizing power of labor was completely undercut. There was little protection to be found at local level once this assault was fully under way.

Indeed, as capital flees its corporate homelands in greater and greater amounts for new and often unregulated adventures, the ability of governments of all sizes to regulate flows and impacts, even in the largest economies, has long been compromised.  And in an age when corporate money fuels so much political opportunity, there seems to be less and less state interest – all rhetoric to the contrary  — in controlling and then balancing fiscal excesses.

And so we have this Labor Day which, in the US at least, takes on the character of a Columbus Day or even Memorial Day – ceremonies that few attend, reflection in short supply, a time that some can use to their advantage – for errands or leisure – largely on the backs of workers for whom even this holiday is often denied to them.  We who do so little for ourselves that doesn’t involve credit cards or phone apps, we are free to dismiss and ignore the many people who must work on this day so that we have to “endure” only a minimum of material inconvenience.  In cities like New York, as in much of the rest of the world, every day now is a day for labor, even if some of us have found a way to exempt ourselves from those demands.

This is no rant in support of “socialism,” a term that has lost its flavor as it has been reduced to one piece of a largely vapid argument about whether corporate board rooms or government agencies are most likely to operate in our collective best interest. Nor is this an advocacy piece for a return to a municipal economic framework that is unmindful of some of its own limitations, especially its oft-tepid embrace of cultural, religious or gendered diversity.   Moreover, given how distracted and even obsessed most of us are by our personal technology and enveloping video streams, it isn’t clear any longer that we are paying that much more attention to each other in smaller communities than in mega-cities.

But what is clear is that the burdens of our recent economic inheritance are rendering more and more of us ill-equipped either to care for the  material needs of our families or to participate in the large issues and decisions that affect family futures – the climate sickness that isn’t responding to our prescriptions; the out-of-control weapons production seemingly focused on the next school or hospital to bomb; the employment “opportunities” offered to most of this largest-generation-in-history that ask too little of our minds and souls, and pay even less; the rank competitiveness of the “educated classes” that seem to think that they have enough “earned” privilege to weather a gathering storm to which they mostly give furtive but uncommitted glances.

We have said this on many occasions and will say it on many more: that the growing inequalities which characterize New York and other centers of insufficiently restrained capital mobility are fueling anger and frustration, political cynicism and an increasing susceptibility to suspicion even of those in the next apartment or work cubicle.  As owners continue to own more, our reaction is more fealty than fight, hoping to grab enough of the crumbs dropping from the table that we can keep our own automobiles serviced and our cable bills paid – and that if we are fortunate enough to have such.

Here is news that shouldn’t be news at all: Even if we find the money and work out the data needed for our sustainable development (SDG) commitments, we will not fulfill our promises without the skills, participation and encouragement of many millions of people at local level.  Thus, we must find ways to involve more of the people whose hands are temporarily “idle” but also those who now tend our farms and green spaces, educate our children, provide our municipal services, drive our trucks and vans, and maintain our roads and bridges.  These are the workers – once at least locally respected and now just mostly taken for granted – who make the lives of the rest of us possible. If the SDGs are to succeed, we must focus more than normal of our practical and policy attention on those who haul away our trash, bag our groceries or make our daily cappuccinos.

Through the UN and especially the International Labor Organization, we have made some progress on labor-related issues such as the ethics of supply chains; on codifying and ensuring the rights of economic migrants; on identifying and addressing child labor, forced labor and other “chain gang”-like abuses; and on eliminating gender imbalances in pay and appointments.   But we have miles yet to travel, and the road seems to get rockier at every turn.

On this Labor Day weekend, let us please take at least a few moments to reflect on our unmet personal and policy responsibilities to the workers on whom we depend and whose plight in our overly scripted, technologically-dense, top-heavy economies is becoming more and more perilous.

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