Since the 1880’s, May 1st is celebrated as International Workers Day, a worldwide event representing the solidarity of working class men and women. It was the 1886 Haymarket Square Riots in Chicago that inspired this day. Workers in the 19th century were exploited, working fourteen hour days, seven days a week in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, by the capital class who profited enormously from the railroad, steel, mining and chemical boom of that era.
The struggle for better working conditions and fair practices went on for fifty-two years. It wasn’t until June 25, 1938 that American workers were guaranteed an eight hour day and certain labor assurances. These demands could have been met without government intervention if the capitalist class valued their workers over huge profits.
It was the 16th century Scottish Economist, Adam Smith, who wrote in The Wealth of Nations “The wages of labor and the working conditions of labor will be as low as society’s sense of decency will tolerate.” It’s up to society, through government agencies, organized labor, boycotts, moral persuasion, or a combination of all of the above, who will determine working conditions and compensation.
Even though it’s the 21st century, we’re seeing many of the past practices of the capitalist class resurface; like old wine in new skins. Part of it is the “flat world” that Thomas Friedman talked about. Globalized trade, outsourcing, supply-chaining, and political forces have altered the world, making all nations economically interdependent.
It began in the Eighties to increase company profits by cheap labor and eliminating basic safety by outsourcing to other countries; where the cost of labor was dirt-cheap and legal restrictions were non-existent. The first to disappear was the steel industry, followed by the automobile industry and then manufacturing. Americans tried to be optimistic because of the new service and knowledge economy. Those jobs required brains; the foreign workers were welcome to jobs that required brawn.
With the technology boom of the Nineties, jobs in software development and programming proliferated in Northern California, but just as with the steel, automobile, and manufacturing industries, corporate greed took over. The hardware jobs went overseas and shortly after, customer service.
Even that wasn’t enough for the corporate barons. They brought labor from other countries, using the HB1 Visa to import technology engineers who would work for lower wages than their American counterparts. They used other HB2 visas for jobs they claimed Americans wouldn’t do (they might do them if they paid better). HB2 guest workers have become a new form of slave labor for business. Read some of the stories of HB2 workers here: http://tinyurl.com/d2gkb4t The problem will worsen in the future with the changes proposed for the guest worker programs.
At the same time, the President is proposing to give a 20 percent income tax credit to businesses that move operations back to the United States, bringing jobs back home. The downside? Corporations are moving the cheap foreign workers with them, in the form of the HB2 guest workers.
Corporations are more than happy to embrace a world market. It’s a much larger employee base, more bodies who will work for slave-like wages and all the while, the corporate world isn’t required to adhere to basic human standards, nor to offer basic benefits, unlike Americans who expect nothing less.
It won’t be the operation of market forces (i.e. capitalist free-for-all) that will push the pendulum to the other side. Throughout the 20th century we’ve learned most corporations and business won’t seize the moral high ground by their own volition. They will take shortcuts on worker safety and worker compensation to increase corporate profit every time. We have plenty of examples in very recent history; think back to the BP disaster in the Gulf and even more recently, the disaster in West and in Bangladesh.
For American workers, it won’t be long until workplace safety will go the way of the living wage, retirement and healthcare. The workers of other countries exploited by the compete-globally-excuse are getting smarter. They, too, are demanding more. The Chinese workers are starting to demand better wages and shorter days. At the time of the Dhaka factory collapse, even the poor Bangladesh workers were organizing to improve conditions in the garment factories. Today, those same workers burned down factories in protest and they were met by the lathis and bullets of the police.
It’s the Haymarket Riots all over again, in another geographical location.
As the realization of labor injustice takes hold in one country after another, will Corporate America move their operations from one poverty-stricken country to an even more poverty-stricken country? Will they ever exhaust their supply of cheap labor? Will they ever run out of workers who will tolerate subsistence wages and unsafe environments?
Will our great-great grandchildren be clamoring for those sixteen-cent-a-day garment jobs?
By Carol Morgan, http://lubbockonline.com/interact/blog-post/carol-morgan/2013-04-30/may-1st-day-worker