A Labor Agenda for the 21st Century: Less Work

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There are many icons of American labor: the Haymarket martyrs, Cesar Chavez, Joe Hill. But often overlooked are a cartoon pair who taught us a lot about resisting the wage system: Beavis and Butthead.

In an episode titled “On Strike,” America’s favorite chuckleheads get inspired by the ongoing baseball strike to start their own work stoppage against their employers at Burger World. When asked by a reporter why they were picketing, Butthead responded, “Because Burger World sucks.” He then elaborated, “It’s like, we don’t want to work. We just want the money.”

Creator Mike Judge was having fun with the 1990s slacker culture. But he was on to something.

It’s a point that often gets lost in the big labor issues of today. Inspiring rank-and-file workers are pushing for higher wages in fast-food restaurants in places like Chicago and New York. Wal-Mart workers are trying to organize.

The world’s attention has been focused on workplace safety after the horrifying building collapse that claimed more than 1,000 workers’ lives in Bangladesh. Just this week, more than 100 Chinese workers were killed when a fire broke out in a chicken factory, with only one exit door.

There’s a lot of talk about the dignity of labor or how good jobs fuel a good economy. But at the end of the day, between the hot kitchens, the annoying customers and the petty managers, working at Wendy’s or Burger World sucks.

It’s hard for the labor movement to grasp because it is a part of the dramatic shift from an industrial economy to a service-based one. Workers in steel mills, on the docks and hauling freight see themselves as an integral part of strong, American production. Big factories, historically, have often been the pride of a town, not just its economic engine, and so those workers were pillars of the community.

That collective sense of pride in work was often invested into unions, which partly made unions such a strong force in the boom times of places like Michigan.

Retail and food service are much different. Workers are subservient to customers, not skilled laborers to be admired. On the contrary, customers — even potential class allies — extract a sense of superiority from these wage earners. The customer must be called sir or ma’am. The customer is “always right.” The customer makes orders, just a like a boss.

While workers at Boeing might look at a finished airplane with a sense of pride and even patriotism, no one really feels that way after flipping a Big Mac.

This problem is also rooted in the fact that the vast majority of the labor movement has bought into the Protestant work ethic as its enemies working for the Chamber of Commerce. The platform for most unions is to reward hard work with rewards — good wages and benefits — and to create more work for more people.

All of this has been greatly under attack, and that’s partially because the last time labor rallied to regulate the work day was more than 100 years ago. The labor movement won the eight-hour day, but today a 40-hour work week is considered a luxury.

Most wage earners, in order to better their situations, simply have to work more hours, sacrificing family commitments, their health and in the long run the enjoyment of life. Unions want these workers to earn higher wages to match inflation and cost of living, but they’re still slaving away in jobs without dignity.

The consequences of a political platform based on keeping Americans working go far beyond the personal. Liberals give speeches about job creation, but here’s a list of stimulus packages: fracking, the Keystone pipeline, prisons, and war production. Then liberals are taken aback when unions embrace these conservative causes, as the AFL-CIO indirectly supports the pipeline and prison guards unions have pushed for draconian sentencing measures like California’s “three strikes and you’re out” law.

Liberals always talk about how great public works programs are. They should be careful what they wish for.

However, this can change. Maybe unions should start to work for, well, less work. As some labor advocates have written, automation, once feared and loathed by unions, can be embraced as a way to reduce the number of lives that must be sacrificed for dull, painful and soul-draining labor.

Unions can work with social justice organizations to advocate for reforms, such as shorter working hours, universal income, better maternity leave laws and more affordable health care, things that should be the benefits of living in such a rich country regardless of what one’s employment status is.

Unions need a change in philosophy, not just tactics. That change must be to stop believing that wealth for the 99% can be extracted solely by their work. Instead it should be something we can all have, since the 1% has crafted a society that needs fewer workers.

And maybe all of us—unionized and non-unionized, employed and unemployed—will be a little happier for it.

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Ari Paul

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A Labor Agenda for the 21st Century: Less Work

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