So we’ll have to work for ourselves
From the time of the Pharaohs to today’s mega-corporations, the rich and powerful have abused those who work for them. It’s time to make them stop and to create work we want and need.
From slavery times until now, big employers have never wanted to pay. In the early 20th Century, World War 1 was a great boost to US industry as new factories opened to build ships, trucks and weapons. The war also made labor scarcer, as thousands of workers left their jobs to serve in the army. Because the war disrupted shipping, the flow of poor immigrant workers from Europe dried up. The result was a huge shortage of labor.
Searching for more workers, industrialists invited Black former slaves to come North, offering far better pay and more freedom than they could get in the Jim Crow South. Southern Black workers started to move, creating a massive labor problem in the South.
Without workers to pick the crops, the landowners couldn’t get rich off the land as they had before. Owners tried everything to keep their sharecroppers and laborers home. They barred Northern recruiters from their towns. They arrested would-be migrants at train stations on made-up charges like vagrancy. Articles were written; emergency meetings were held.
The one thing they never seemed to consider was paying their workers a decent wage. According to Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, when citrus pickers in Florida started demanding more pay, growers threatened to kill them. Sharecroppers worked all summer without pay and were told at season’s end that they owed the landowner.
Planters also kept the idea of treating workers better off the table. Foremen still walked the fields carrying whips to spur laborers to work harder. With few exceptions, if they couldn’t operate with forced labor (such as prison labor,) Southern bosses chose losing their farms over treating their workers decently.
From the plantations to the mines
Was this refusal to pay workers a uniquely racist thing, or is it common in class relations? Skin color obviously had a lot to do with it, but books I’ve read recently document how brutal exploitation of all workers is normal.
Consider the experience of miners. According to Professor Michael Goldfield’s book The Southern Key, miners’ lives historically resembled those of slaves. They weren’t allowed to take a day off when sick; company thugs could come to their shack, pull them out of bed and drag them to the mine. Miners routinely worked 12 hours a day underground, not seeing the sun, killed slowly by breathing in coal dust, or quickly in mine explosions.
Many workers lived in company towns and were forced to buy from company stores. Bringing in food from another source could get you arrested or evicted. Like sharecroppers, they could work all year and still be in debt to the company.
When miners organized to fight for better lives, they were usually met with violence. Coal mine owners routinely placed machine guns at mine entrances to deter picketers. Miners or outsiders who tried to organize a union were frequently shot by company gunmen.
Why it’s called wage slavery
Workers have made some progress since those days. We are not slaves or sharecroppers. But for many workers, once their shift starts, they are driven as mercilessly as slaves. This is where the term “wage slave” comes from; workers are free to quit but have no rights while on the job.
A high-tech form of wage slavery can be seen at Amazon warehouses, where workers are literally supervised by computers; they have to keep up an exhausting pace all day with a few short breaks. Workers frequently collapse or are injured. Amazon treats employees as if they were machines, resulting in a turnover rate of up to 100% per year in California warehouses studied by the National Employment Law Project.
Not all bosses are treat workers like Amazon, mine owners, and Southern planters have treated theirs. Books on management usually advise executives to consider their workers’ well-being, and many do. But clearly, dehumanizing, exploiting, and grinding down workers is a norm, and it has been for thousands of years. Slavery, serfdom, and indentured servitude prevailed for ages. Now we have capitalism, and the difference from the older systems is not always clear.
Today’s workers are the new sharecroppers; employers need our work but are not willing to pay for it. Remember when everyone was celebrating ‘essential workers?’ Now those same heroes are considered bums. According to Rebekah Entralgo of Inequality.org, ”Republican governors from Montana, South Dakota, Utah, Iowa, and Arkansas have already announced they will cut unemployment benefits in order to force more people back to work.”
A sick relationship
Is there something in human minds that makes employers despise or discount those who work for them? Or is the cause an economic system that forces capitalists to drive the most production from workers for the lowest cost? It might be both.
Robin Wall Kimmerer has explained the difference between gift and market economies. When someone gives you something, the gift creates a relationship. When you buy that same thing at a store, the relationship ends when you hand over your money. You and the clerk don’t care about each other, and you have no connection at all with the producer.
The same is true when the thing in question is labor, rather than the product of labor. Why should an employer care about their workers? They already paid them.
A boss who actually knows you probably won’t treat you like a disposable robot, but Jeff Bezos of Amazon doesn’t know his workers and never will. Southern plantation owners didn’t know their field hands. Get to know your bosses, but don’t count on corporations’ developing a conscience. For many of us, if we want to have decent work, we have to get out of this system.
Ways out of worker abuse
● Worker-owned cooperatives run businesses all over the world. Workers are expected to participate in structuring their own job and participate in democratically deciding what the company does. A few have become quite large. We can all support non-corporate economics by buying from cooperatives. In most areas, community-supported agriculture (CSA) cooperatives will deliver food to you and save you shopping.
● Start your own business. Who knows, maybe you’ll become one of the few successful tech startups, or some other work that people want, hopefully one that’s good for society and planet.
● Grow our own food — maybe on some of the land currently wasted on lawns and golf courses.
And things we could do collectively:
● Universal Basic Income — With modern technology, workers and machines produce great wealth, most of which is kept by the corporate owners. We could easily tax them and provide a basic income to everyone. People would still need and want to work, but would not have to work horrible, dangerous, or extremely low-paying jobs to avoid hunger and homelessness.
● Revolution — In theory, a people’s government could take machinery and land away from the super-rich by force and organize production to improve the health of society and Nature. Revolutionary governments might, for example, have great public transportation, community-based agriculture, and far less military and police spending.
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