What is Labor Worth?

Friday, March 17, 2017

I've been thinking about what labor is worth. I read this article about a factory worker that commuted about 46 miles a day; almost half of it walking, because he couldn't afford a car. I understand someone did donate a vehicle once his story became public. My question is: Why? Why isn't someone that has been working the same a factory job making enough to afford a reliable vehicle? How can a great society do this to it's hardest working members? Does America really place such a low value on honest work?

I'm recently finished reading 'Glass House' by Brian Alexander. It's tells the story of Anchor Hocking and Lancaster, Ohio and how the town went from a vibrant community that produced goods and supported a solid mixed class society into a rundown community trying to survive. It's really the story of any Rust-belt town including the town I grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It shows in detail how the current United States economy has failed low and semi-skilled workers. It tells the story of how unfettered (OK - barely fettered) capitalism destroyed the middle class in America. It's a devastating read.

Let's take a look at two low-skilled worker's from two generations:

My father grew up on what was essentially a subsistence farm in central Wisconsin, right smack in the middle of nine children. After eighth grade he dropped out of school to be 'farmed-out' - working for another farm. I don't know the financial arrangements, but, since this was during the great depression, I'm sure that it was a financial necessity. At age 18 he was a Marine and he spent his nineteenth birthday fighting the battle of Okinawa. After the war he returned home, but signed on to the reserves for a little extra cash. He was recalled for the Korean War, but avoided combat and served in the Mediterranean on a ship. My late Uncle Fritz liked to tease him that dad's second tour was 'a cruise ship vacation.' Dad eventually made it back to Wisconsin and worked a couple of factory jobs before settling in at Johns-Manville in Waukegan, IL, about 15 miles from Kenosha. He worked there for around 40 years. It was a dirty, hard, low skilled but decent work that he stayed at until retirement. Factory work afforded my father a comfortable life. He always had two cars. The cars weren't always new but they rarely needed repairs. When I was born we lived in a small two bedroom, one bath house with a one car garage. When I was eleven, my parents bought a couple of acres and built a three bedroom ranch and added a two-car garage a couple of years later. As far as I know we always had decent health care, including dental and optometry coverage. Dad also had a pension, and with Social Security and Medicare, his retirement was without want. He lived a comfortable, modest life.

Contrast that with one of my contemporary relatives - similarly low-skilled, married with 2 children: Their life has been financially much more challenging. They do have two cars which are usually working. They have never owned a new vehicle, and the husband spends a fair amount of free time making repairs. They do own a three-bedroom ranch but it is not new - it was built about the same time my parents built their home and it needs a lot of work. In fact, I am in the process of helping them install a new roof (come on spring!) Health care has been sporadic, sometimes the job supplies it, sometimes not, but it is never as good as my fathers. There is no pension, and they have never had enough extra to fund a 401k when it has been available. If the Republicans get their way and Social Security (and/or Medicare) vanishes, these hard-working people have no hope of ever retiring. The husband has worked a number of jobs and they have moved around. Maybe some of their decisions have been questionable, but they are good honest people and not all of the hardship that falls on them is self-inflicted. The husband started working at the same factory my father worked at, Johns-Manville in Waukegan. (I worked there for about a year while I was going to college). The plant closed in about 1985 and was torn down. It is a Superfund site.

These two relatives highlight the demise of the working class in America. I don't claim to have all (hell any of) the answers, but devaluing people would be high on my list. 'Glass House' illustrates the way that greed raped companies in the 80's, 90's, and continues into the current decade. The middle class became a casualty of greed. Anchor Hocking was still a going concern, with about a thousand employees and decent business prospects in 2016, but it is but a shadow of what it once was. As long as we allow the 'Money Changers' to control our economy, we have no hope of ever returning to the greatness that the greatest generation achieved.