Saturday, December 20, 2008

What's wrong with rewarding physical labor?

There's something I've been trying to put my finger on in regards to the current outcry against the United Auto Workers.

I felt it back in 2005 during the transportation workers' strike in New York City. It has popped up again around discussions of labor market reforms in places like India and South Africa and France. It even hovers in some Chinese reactions to this fall's exodus of unemployed migrant workers from the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta to the country's rural interior---as it did around discussions of laid off state-owned enterprise employees in Liaoning and Heilongjiang a decade ago. I think I'm starting to get an idea of what it is...

There's a sense among an alarmingly large number of people---in the U.S., China, Europe and elsewhere---that it is not only impractical for an economy to allow people to make a great living (not just a decent living) through physical labor, but that it is in some way conniving, even disgusting when workers do so or, worse yet, that it is downright morally wrong. Call it Max Weber's "protestant ethic" in reverse. To NOT work hard, by the emerging logic, should be amply rewarded (see the quoted section of Krugman's column in my previous entry) and if you're poor, it's your own fault because you have been working too hard!

Obviously, this thinking is not entirely new. But at a time when a global financial crisis is in full swing, it is strange not to see more of a push back against this meme from more sectors of society.

The courageous factory occupation of Chicago UE workers (who have been supported by president-elect Obama) and the drawn-out but successful UFCW organizing drive at the Smithfield meat packing plant in North Carolina are encouraging for America.  So, too, in the Chinese context, are the innumerable strikes, protests and riots by Chinese taxi drivers, toy factory workers, suitcase manufacturers, teachers, cops and even small factory owners.  But I don't see a middle class cohort standing with these people in either country.

Do workers need a vanguard of intellectuals, of hipsters and company men?  No, of course not. But it seems like it would be healthy if there was a greater appreciation for work among these people, as they dominate popular culture and the levers of government.   And that appreciation should come in the form of support for high-sky high-salaries.

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