Archive | 1:29 pm

Union Station:  A Labor Day Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Sep

If suddenly the whole workers of the whole world disappear then the whole world will stop!  Mehmet Murat ildan

And there are so much easier ways to destroy a woman. You don’t have to rape her or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her. You can just marry her. You don’t even have to do that. You can just let her work in your office for thirty-five dollars a week.  Marilyn French

What our generation failed to learn was the nobility of work. An honest day’s labor. The worthiness of the man in the white socks who would pull out a picture of his grandkids from his wallet. For us, the factory would never do. And turning away from our birthright – our grandfather in the white socks – is the thing that ruined us.  Charlie LeDuff

Butter was plastered on to the roll with no regard for the hard labor of the cowKate Atkinson

I was in a large international airport recently with a bit of time on my hands to watch a British Airways flight park at the gate and then be literally surrounded by service workers helping people off the plane, refueling and re-servicing the aircraft, downloading luggage and then cargo, wandering around the perimeter looking for cracks in the hull or worn tires or some other problem that would require immediate attention before the plane could fly again.  Close to where I was standing, people were selling coffee, newspapers and duty free items.  Flight attendants in colorful uniforms chatted with gate agents while waiting their turn to manage an outgoing flight.  TSA agents were on break from dealing with long lines of passengers anxiously (and in some instances angrily) waiting to be screened before take off.  In the distance, men and women were working in the receding but still-hot sun to repair a run-down runway that can stand up to the demands of heavier planes and more frequent landings.

It has been quite some time since I could register as a “fan” of flying.  Planes are cramped.  Service is uneven.  Screening lines can be interminable.  Transportation options to and from the airports I am most inclined to use are stuck in some bygone era.   We all know the drill and we mostly all know that flying should be less of an option given its contribution to climate change.

But this is Labor Day weekend and the airport scene has given rise to a couple of positive thoughts.  First, that part of why flying is an occasionally miserable experience is because it has become a more accessible one.  While they might not ever qualify for “elite status,” more people can find the means – and the fares – to visit some of the places they have perhaps long dreamed of; they have been able to turn a bit of hard-earned and sometimes even hard-fought income into a bit of family pampering.  Flying may not be romantic anymore, nor is it eco-friendly in any sense, but planes are now routinely filled with people making trips of a lifetime alongside fellow travelers making something more akin to trips of the week.

Beyond that, my airport scene was a reminder of just how many competent people are required to make the travel experience safe and relatively convenient.  From the chefs and mechanics to the pilots and gate agents, that so many planes filled with so many people get to their destinations more or less on time and in one piece is something of a miracle.  That most of these airport magicians work for wages which would shock many of us; that most are given absolutely no thought by the rest of us until and unless our baggage is missing or our coffee is cold; that most are considered marginal to this complex process when, in fact, the process would utterly break down without them; this is part of the modern mind-set with respect to labor, the trend to grant respect as a function of income and title rather than of competency and collaboration.

For in an age of gross and growing economic inequalities, in a time when more people have college degrees (with loans and expectations to match) than viable career options, we are strangely inclined to “root for riches,” to long for those times when we can “rub shoulders” with the wealthy and famous, the people who have “made it,” in too-many cases by putting their own interests – and those of their investment partners – well ahead of the well-being of their fellow workers.

I have no metric at hand to calculate the degree to which this current “gilded age” is more or less corrupt and mean-spirited than previous iterations.  But it has surely set a high bar for celebrity worship and stoked an often-petty competition for economic and educational opportunity at local levels.   Somehow, despite the testimony of our own senses, we have managed to misplace the basic insight that our celebrities and economic elites will be nowhere to be found when a tire punctures on the highway or our children need to overcome reading deficiencies; when our groceries need to be bagged and carried to our vehicles, or when our blood pressure starts soaring to dangerous levels.   Moreover, we seem remarkably content to let our commerce and consumption flow through our ubiquitous “devices,” ensuring that “we” get what “we” want without worrying about having to put a human face on any part of that transaction, including on the labor needed to produce our purchase in the first instance.  Indeed the only “face” associated with what is often highly complex and very human consumption is the fake smile on the ubiquitous brown boxes now waiting outside our doors; perhaps also adorning the bill that we will pay when and if we are able.

One of our favorite UN agencies is the International Labor Organization, an entity that actually pre-dates the UN and which has long advocated for labor standards that are rights-based, increasingly applicable to workers of all backgrounds (including migrants), dedicated to eliminating all forms of forced labor and economic slavery, and which allow for the bargaining that can help to ensure a livable wage for all, including and especially the toil of “all” who, among their other miracles, make today’s obscene riches and middle class conveniences possible.  The institutional memory of the ILO can call up many instances of abuses directed towards workers, as well as boardroom and state decisions to enhance shareholder value and consumer access at the expense of those who toil in fields and warehouses, with sometimes grave implications for their families and communities as well.

I have often walked or driven down major streets in parts of my still-affluent country — New Jersey or Oklahoma, Florida or North Carolina — and paid close attention to the small businesses and chain stores that occupy storefronts or populate small shopping malls.   And while I’ve had my share of jobs in such places, I cannot imagine what it must be like to work behind those counters and cash registers day after day, year after year, trying to keep a business or even a simple livelihood afloat while also preserving the often-fragile security for their families.

And, perhaps ironically, I who sit daily and help navigate policy in a powerful place have greater need for some of these people than they will ever have for me.   I need the socks they are selling to replace the ones with holes in them; I need the pizza they are selling when I forget to eat lunch; I need their skills to service our balky copy machine; I need the dish soap and paper towels that keep my semblance of an apartment reasonably clean; I need others to respond when I have interns to credential or taxes to prepare; I even need their baseball opinions while I’m cashing out my beer purchases.

Our lives are punctuated by an ever-increasing tapestry of skills and capacities that we barely recognize and often denigrate, the people whose labor should (but often doesn’t) confer the dignity that my own work confers routinely; and this despite the fact that it is sometimes unclear what we do, practically speaking, for anyone else. Indeed, if we add value beyond the confines of our UN bubble, it is shining a supportive lens on the marginal and forgotten, not as a category of need but of promise, the promise of skills, energy and passion that can contribute more to making the world we say we want and are in serious danger of losing.

The other day in the paper, a couple of CEOs were quoted in ways that appeared to reverse what has been a generation of economic orthodoxy — that the role of business leadership was primarily to serve the interests of the investment class.  As our friends at Georgia Tech’s Scheller School remind us regularly, the “servant leadership” we (and they) speak of often seems to be catching on in some of our previously “tone deaf” board rooms.  Perhaps we are finally coming to recognize that the “status” of labor is not intrinsic to the task but is a function of our ability to honor both the hard work that sustains our lives and the positive identities that accrue when work is duly respected and fairly compensated. Perhaps we are coming to recognize that a social and economic system capable of weathering the current storms that threaten will require much more from us – including more “horizontal” care and respect – than our current stew amply seasoned with overly-branded leadership and bloated salaries to match.

Perhaps a bit like the rest of us, people at or near the top of our current economic food chain like to think that they have “earned” their lofty place in the world.  But an honest review of any one of our increasingly complex institutions and social structures makes clear that we are where we are – no matter who we are — because other people helped place us there. I cannot do what I am so fortunate to do in this world without the contributions of countless (often under-compensated and under-appreciated) people – in my neighborhood of course but also in places like El Salvador where too many toil under conditions over which they have little control and from which they receive insufficient benefit.

In this condition of dependency, I am not at all an isolated case; but hopefully becoming a more mindful and grateful one.