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Discomfort in America and a Labor Movement Without Unions

16 Oct

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something’s happening here. And to be frank, what it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man, and a woman, with an attitude over there, and a realization, and a new way of thinking, and opened eyes, and a tired will. He, and she, and an assortment of other strange, unfamiliar phenomena, have unknowingly cojoined to produce discomfort in America and the world. He, and she, and all the rest, have caused you to pay more for bacon and chicken wings and refrigerators and stoves. Because of her, and him, and all the rest, it is harder or impossible to get certain products, things you have always relied on, things that you always expected to be there. Because of her, and him, and all the rest, supply trucks to stores are late, half empty, or never arrive. Prepare to wait 26 weeks for kitchen cabinets.

         In the end, what he and she have done will result in something good for America.

         But what it is isn’t exactly clear. Not to me, anyway. Still, I’m trying to think it through, read about it, figure it out on my own. My conclusions may be accurate, semi-accurate or ridiculous. In these times, what does it matter?

         In these times, what broken and weakened unions failed to do – join workers in a wide confederation that confronts big management and rejects low wages, decimated benefits, poor working conditions and corrosive indignity – is being done quite effectively on an individual, uncoordinated, one-by-one basis. I’m speaking of  the men and women with attitudes, realizations, a new way of thinking, opened eyes, and tired wills.

         In short, disgusted people have decided not work. Without consulting each other, they have – separately but together – stopped making you breakfast at your local diner, they have stopped helping you find socket wrenches at Home Depot, and they no longer answer the phone at your doctor’s office. Without unions, without campaigns and encouragement, and without organization of any kind, much of America has gone on strike. The U.S. Labor Department reported in October that a record 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guess this is unprecedented in the history of the American labor movement.

Ships backed up in port, unable to unload

                   It’s really about time. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says the typical American worker, after adjusting for inflation, hasn’t gotten a raise in 40 years.

          To illustrate the plight of the low-wage worker, a conceptual artist and self-taught engineer named Blake Fall-Conroy  built a machine as a way to duplicate the frustrations and hopelessness felt by workers. The machine is a box filled with pennies. It has a crank. When the user (worker) turns the crank, he receives payment in pennies for the time he or she has turned the crank. If payment is at the rate of $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage, the machine gives the worker one penny every 4.97 seconds. The payments stop when the cranking stops. Blake’s contraption begs the question: How long is the average person willing to turn that crank? Today’s labor shortage suggests the answer: Not long.

         In a New York Times story, we are told about Sandra Beadling, the manager of a Dollar General store in Maine. She’s claims to put in 70-hour workweeks (without overtime), doing the job of several employees, including stocking shelves. The story doesn’t mention her salary but does say she has a difficult time hiring people at the Dollar General rate of $12 an hour because Walmart is paying $16. In August, she got home from work one night at 11:30, left her house the next morning at 4 a.m. to do an inventory check, then quit. No more of this, she said.

         This is happening a lot.

         How can so many people just quit their jobs? How do they live?

With people quitting jobs, it’s harder to get a cup of coffee

         Well, let’s hope they have a working spouse and some savings. But the person who quit no longer needs a car, can probably save money on lunches, coffee and clothes, no longer has to pay for daycare or now can provide free daycare for grandchildren. They also can earn extra cash as a free agent in the gig economy, working when they want for companies like Uber and Door Dash or even Amazon delivery.

         The quitter might actually come out even, especially is you add value to free time, family time and the absence of stress and aggravation.

         But as I said, it’s not exactly clear what’s going on. There is indeed a labor shortage related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with some people unwilling to work jobs that put them at risk. Also, some factories may have shut down due to COVID, making it difficult or impossible to get certain products. Then there are demand shifts that have caused havoc in the market and its supply chains. For example, in the beginning of the pandemic, there was this idea that automobile sales would suffer but people staying at home would buy more gaming systems, kitchen equipment, exercise equipment, hair clippers, and so on. So computer chip factories that were still operating shifted production away from chips used in cars and trucks and began focusing on chips for home electronics. When the auto market roared back, there weren’t enough chips for the new cars. Since then, the price of used cars has risen to unbelievable heights. And  because of all those orders for gaming systems, kitchen equipment, exercise equipment, hair clippers, and so on, container ships are clogging American ports and there are not enough dock workers to unload them. There is also a shortage of containers.

         Fueling some of our current woes is an energy crisis in China, Europe and elsewhere. We are ordering more from China, but China is running short of coal to fuel the factories that make the products we want. Major flooding has shut down major Chinese coal mines, and China somehow got into a spat with Australia, a main exporter of coal to China, and China no longer buys from them. So coal prices have soared and China is forced to conserve by shutting down factories. Naturally, it takes longer to get your Chinese-manufactured goods.

A coal shortage in China has caused factories to shut down

         Meanwhile, in Britain, non-British truck drivers (and there were a lot of them) were forced from their jobs when Britain exited the European Union. Fuel is going undelivered, as well as other goods. Food is rotting in fields.

         So the world’s in a mess.

         Again, while it is not quite clear what is happening, my main culprit in all this is mostly unseen, unless you look closely. It’s a demographic shift caused by income inequality. And I’ll explain this simply and quickly:

         All around the world, a higher percentage of wealth has accumulated in a smaller number of hands. The hands that go wanting see no reason to incur the added cost of children and family, and populations fall. Meanwhile, the large number of older people – part of a population boom after World War II – are retiring and leaving their jobs, or dying and leaving their jobs. With so few young people coming into the job market, and with the widespread anti-immigration movement keeping foreign workers out, there aren’t enough people around to fill the vacant jobs, especially low-paying jobs. Important things don’t get done anymore.

         The end.

         And so, wages must rise – significantly. Inequality must ebb. People must once again feel the degree of economic security that convinces them to bear children and work hard at their jobs, to strive for something better rather than withdraw from something worse. The process will be slow, but inexorable. When it happens, maybe everything will once again become clear. And balance, now out of whack, will be restored.

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