There’s a war on everything these days. The War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on Women, and the War on Christmas. Now, some of those may not actually look like warfare in the slightest and may just be overblowing a real issue to play on people’s emotions, but I say we throw another war on the pile. While it may not actually involve a war, labor in the U.S. is currently facing a number of threats.
A values shift is the first threat. Some of you may have noticed that younger folks often don’t want to work very hard or simply aren’t accustomed to it because our culture no longer values it or promotes it. Hard work can easily be seen as something you do if you don’t have a “good” education or much talent. Many well-meaning parents encouraged their children to get a college degree so that the next generation wouldn’t have to do the back-breaking brutal labor that they had experienced. How’s that working out? Well, I have a college degree and I’m currently a roofer for the summer and planning to keep working on my second degree in the fall because finding entry-level jobs that lead to a good career is currently damn near impossible if that tells you anything. The other part of the value shift is in the increasing importance of wealth acquisition and the decreasing importance of integrity and character, something that is especially pernicious among the elites. The virtue of selfishness is not a virtue that lends itself to a successful society, because obviously it’s directed entirely towards self-aggrandizement and does not spend a great deal of time considering everyone else. So the folks at the top are getting theirs and leaving labor to fend for itself, and the labor itself is of decreasing quality because of a decreasing work ethic driven by the values shift.
But wait, it gets better. The federal government is here to help by raising the minimum wage. Only, it really doesn’t help that much because it doesn’t address the problem of corporate greed or the decreasing value of our labor due to a lack of experience and work ethic. One of the reasons that outsourcing is so appealing and unions are increasingly unable to maintain their significance is that the cost of labor has been increasing arbitrarily rather than keeping pace with its value after you take into account inflation. At least we can take comfort in the fact that we’ve ensured that poor but hard-working Americans have a living wage, right? Well, not exactly. The attempts to artificially create a living wage via government mandate have been keeping the unemployed in place and adding to their ranks. Well, at least we have the labor unions to ensure everyone gets a living wage, right? Sorry, but no. Labor unions can play a very important role in keeping companies honest in how they treat their workers, but only so long as they cooperate with achieving the success of the business and the business actually cares about having good labor. When labor unions become an obstacle to business, whether it’s refusing to get rid of a bad employee or employees who simply aren’t needed due to decreased demand for the product, engaging in corruption, or just pricing themselves out of the labor market, it’s not good for labor any more than it is for business because business will find another way to accomplish its goals. Also, becoming a union member often requires knowing someone with pull, which not everyone does, so it’s not as if just anyone can get a good union job any more than they can get a good job in general.
Between greedy executives, well-meaning but inept government, and new cultural values, labor is facing a serious uphill battle. So what can we do? Well, to begin we can recognize that the problem isn’t as simple as getting the other party (Democrats or Republicans) to let you do your thing. We have to recognize that the problems are more complex than either party’s favored strategy can address effectively. Once we do that, we can move on to more practical items like including more vocational courses in public education, allowing young people who want to work do so at wages that match their lack of experience and training while giving them a chance to gain those things, shifting values away from selfishness and towards cooperation and moral integrity, and a whole host of other things.