Where Will It All End?

In his excellent and sobering book, Aftershock, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich notes that the challenge facing the American economy isn’t simply to provide jobs, jobs, and more jobs. The challenge will be to provide good jobs.

And after studying the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) latest report, Mr. Reich can’t be pleased. According to the BLS, there were 1.1 million private sector jobs gained in the last year, and of those jobs, 650,000 (or about 60-percent) could be categorized as marginal. They are jobs that neither create personal wealth nor offer real benefits.

Sixty-percent of these new jobs went to temporary help, leisure and hospitality, and retail sales. The BLS cites the average rate of packers and packagers as $8.62 per hour. Other than keeping families from starving or living on the street, how are $8.62/hour jobs—not for teenagers still living with their parents, but for heads of households—supposed to help the economy?

There’s a common phrase to describe the phenomenon where low-paying, low-benefit jobs drive out decent, well-paying jobs. That phrase is “lowering the standard of living.” Arguably, those words used to strike fear in the hearts of middle-class workers who believed that a high (if not the very highest) standard of living was more or less an American birth right.

Yet it’s obvious that as the influence of unions has declined, our standard of living has declined right along with it. And why wouldn’t it? With unions weaker and nothing (no government muscle, no media support) to resist the downward pressure on wages, corporations will continue grinding workers down until, in theory, they reach the federal minimum of $7.25/hour (which, no surprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vehemently opposed).

Having once lived and worked in India, I try to keep abreast of Indian labor issues. And one of the more alarming trends in Indian manufacturing these days can be seen in what’s happening in Gurgaon district—a region in the northern Indian state of Haryana that produces the majority of the country’s cars and motorcycles.

Union activists in Haryana (members of the AITUC—All India Trade Union Congress) tell me that companies are resorting to the same greedy, extortion tactics U.S. companies began using in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they tried to squeeze out inferior contracts from unions by threatening to shut down their factories and move to the American South, Asia, or Latin America.

Gurgaon companies are now warning factory workers that if they don’t knock off their union activism, they’ll be forced to pull up stakes and move either to South India (their version of Mississippi and Alabama), or to Bangladesh or Vietnam, where workers are hungrier, wages are lower, and governments are far more accommodating.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more swinish or cutthroat, a country like India is in danger of pricing itself out of the manufacturing sector. The irony is staggering. Still resented as poachers—for having lured American jobs to the subcontinent—the Indians are now feeling their own economic pinch as international corporations continue to troll the globe for cheaper labor.

Bangladesh and Vietnam certainly seem like logical targets. They’re poor, hard-working, and eager to attract new industry. But what happens when labor unions gain traction in these two countries? What happens when these Bangladeshi and Vietnamese workers get fed up with the bullshit and demand a larger share of the pie? Answer: “Goodbye, Bangladesh” and “Hello, Somalia.”

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: dmacaray@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 20th, 2011 at 10:09am #

    yes, birds of a feather flock together. the vicious structure: me giver-protector-leader, u dependent-taker-protegee-obeyant stays the same. tnx

  2. hayate said on January 20th, 2011 at 11:24am #

    In the usa, the minimum wage is roughly half what people need to live on, in lower priced regions. In the higher priced regions, it’s around a quarter of what people need to live on. This is for basics, like housing (rent only), food and utilities and not including things like medical needs.

  3. Deadbeat said on January 20th, 2011 at 7:12pm #

    Where will it end or when will it end? It will end when workers become conscience of Capitalism and demand an overthrow of the Capitalist system

  4. hayate said on January 21st, 2011 at 12:08am #

    I bit of working class rok:


    The day passed, and you’re still alive (One More Day)

    (Music: А. Крупнов и ЧЕРНЫЙ ОБЕЛИСК. Слова: А. Крупнов.)

    At the beginning of the day as always, despite everything,
    Forgetting fatigue, illness, congenital laziness.
    Try all their forces to send out
    To stay alive, having survived that day.

    The day passed, and you’re still alive!
    And you’re still alive …

    No matter how you sing and no matter what you drink
    It does not matter – who are you now, more so, where.
    It does not matter – who you are, what you’ve become an hour;
    Far more important than lossless survive this day.

    The day passed, and you’re still alive!
    And you’re still alive …

    You win, you’re strong and proud of myself
    He passed another day, you survive it.
    But tomorrow you will again this fight
    Tomorrow again will you fight for life.

    Come tomorrow …
    In the meantime – you’re alive …

    The day passed, and you’re still alive!
    And you’re still alive …