A Post-Labor Day Post on Labor

And so another Labor Day is behind us. In my neck of the woods, this is considered the unofficial end of summer, the time when the tourists leave the beaches to the locals during the week and only make sporadic weekend trips until they finally disappear altogether. In fact, most of the news coverage has less to do with labor per se and a lot to do with actual laborers and business owners being interviewed on what type of summer it was for them.

Today, every business in my area was open and there were laborers performing laborious tasks. In my travels today, I also happened to see many contractors out there working- electricians, plumbers, construction guys. There was even trash pick up in certain areas by the looks of the number of trucks going to and fro on the roads.

When I was younger, Labor Day meant that school would soon be starting, but kids these days are increasingly starting school before Labor Day actually rolls around. Of course, they get off this day, as do the teachers and custodial staff and what have you, because it is a federal and state holiday. If you are lucky enough, some people get “holiday pay.” And being a state and federal holiday, the banks, the post office, the DMV and tax offices are closed. That means that you cannot deposit a check or withdraw money, buy a stamp, renew your car registration or pay your taxes. But then I forgot- there is direct deposit and ATM debit cards, stamp machines in super markets (which are definitely open), computers to renew your car registration, and on-line banking thingys to pay taxes and order merchandise. It is funny how technology makes you sometimes forget about laborers on Labor Day.

There are the obligatory stories on the nightly news about labor and unions and such. Usually, these revolve around coverage of some lame rally in some major city by some alleged coalition of local labor unions chanting some incoherent chant about “rights” and “fairness” and nice sounding things like that. Did anyone ever notice how cameramen film the angle of these rallies- sort of as if they are stooping and aiming the camera up- in an effort to make it look like there are more people than there actually are?

It is kind of sad what has happened to the labor “movement” in the United States. At one time, they kind of made sense. There certainly was worker exploitation in the past- long work weeks, long work days, no overtime pay, sweatshops, dangerous working conditions. Did labor unions eliminate these things? They certainly shined a light on them, but governmental actions like OSHA and the FLSA actually addressed them. And besides, these violations were not, by and large, perpetrated by the large evil corporations, but smaller enterprises. Most of what unions sought to reform has been more than adequately reformed, except wages.

Even there, they kind of overplayed their hand. The poster boy for this line of thinking is the United Auto Workers union and the automobile industry. Unions are certainly not totally responsible for the high price of automobiles. Government safety and gas mileage mandates play a role also. But, the last time I heard, not counting benefits, the average union auto worker made an average of $45 an hour. That is a lot of change- $1,800 a week assuming you work 40 hours. I think I can live comfortably on that. Then along came the foreign auto makers who located mainly in southern states, which happened to be non-union states, and had the temerity to pay someone the “substandard” wage of about $30 an hour. That $30 an hour to a person in a financially depressed area of the nation is sort of like those ads on late night television where Alyssa Milano beseeches you to depart with 50 cents a day. Put another way, it is still a nice wage. And, it might be mentioned, for a lower wage- but certainly not poverty level wages- the manufacturer then tends to turn out a superior product to the American automaker paying inflated wages. Another observation: how come the workers in these non-union plants are not demanding unionization or marching with the UAW? Could it be because they are happy with their wage and a job?

Today, the big story in labor is the fast food workers going on strike in mainly metropolitan areas. Being metropolitan areas and metropolitan areas being mainly liberal, these job walk-offs generate lots of media attention. The general thrust of the story is thus: We get that skewed camera view of people carrying handwritten signs chanting incoherent chants with the reporter explaining that X-amount of workers walked off the job to protest low wages working at fast food restaurants. Then they will interview one of these protesters with one of those African-American names that no self-respecting African would give their child explaining how they and their children cannot live on $7.50 an hour. That, they explain, is why they have to have government assistance. In one interview I saw- probably on a local news station- was of a young black woman saying that she ate one night and her BOYFRIEND (not husband) ate the next night so that their children (as in plural) could have food.

Their solution is to double the minimum wage to a whopping (or Whopper) $15 an hour. This would take one’s salary from $15,600 to $31,200 a year which is certainly better than $15,600, but certainly does not catapult you into the upper middle class. And what would we get for that $15 an hour? Chances are if your McDonald’s is anything like my McDonald’s, a greeting by a person who can barely speak English and who usually gets some part of the order wrong. Have you ever seen the register at a McDonald’s or any fast food restaurant? There are pictures on the keys! And if you use cash, most fast food outlets have change dispensers so that the $15-an-hour employee does not have to figure change in their head.

I have nothing against the people who work at McDonald’s or other such establishments. But, if being a cashier at McDonald’s or one of the people in the back is your career choice, there are bigger problems than your wage. There are some “advantages” to increasing their wages 100%: either automated tellers where you put in your own order and it will likely be correct (or at least you cannot blame the cashier), or higher prices for a Big Mac meal. This latter option would make the likes of Michael Bloomberg happier since people would not be eating as many Big Macs.

Or more likely, they would follow the lead of Wal-Mart in Washington, DC. which was right right out of DC> Geez!! There is an employment debacle. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has decided to build more stores in… Africa. At least they got it half right. Instead of encouraging an employer to create jobs for the highly unemployed African-American in our Nation’s capital, they will be providing jobs for Africans in Africa.

Getting back to the fast food workers, the idea of an entry-level job, which is what we are talking about here, the key word is “entry.” Being a cashier at McDonald’s or making a burger in the back is not supposed to be a career. There is supposed to be turnover. That is how another group of 17-year-old kids can be seen behind the counter every nine months or so. Not that a career in fast food is a bad thing if you aspire to management or such. And even Shaniqua during her interview says that McDonald’s does promote people. In my neck of the woods, there are these stores called Wa-Wa, which is like a 7-11 in other areas. Wa-Wa stores have the best coffee, by the way; much better than McDonald’s. Assuming you have half a brain, they- like any franchise offering entry level employment opportunities- readily advance people and the pay is good. My pharmaceutical salesman friend who makes six figures today started working at Wa-Wa. Of course, he had more than half a brain. But the point is: mediocrity and inferiority are adequately paid at fast food joints and superiority is rewarded.

But, you have to give kudos to them for trying and aiming high at $15 an hour. Maybe that is the ultimate strategy- aim high to get something else that they may be worth. Like maybe $8.00 an hour. Incidentally, the average wage is $8.94 an hour in the fast food industry. So to the John Lewises and the Jan Schakowskys of the world, keep marching with the fast food workers and getting your face on the nightly news. The new labor revolution starts at the Taco Bell counter. Just please get my order right.