October 7, 2007

Re: Black-Ties Have the Best Toasts, but Workers Eat Asbestos

Justin Katz

I have to admit to being somewhat astonished, Michael, at your protestation that the American worker is at the rock bottom of exploitation. Perhaps I've been distracted by the sheer volume of consumer goods that workers are able to afford. By their lengthening life spans. By their expanding educations. It is true that I lean toward the college-loans-as-indenture interpretation, but somehow that doesn't seem to be what you're talking about.

On what grounds, I wonder, do you make your dehumanizing judgment of your private-sector peers? If, that is, you consider proudly indignant cattle to be your peers. I'll be the last to insist that Rhode Island is defined by an insistence on the empowerment of private sector workers. The state is a cauldron constructed to distill exploitation to its purest form. Still, I think my understanding of my own circumstances is sufficiently considered that a theoretician of the sort who founded our country might consider me free.

In contrast, I'm not sure exactly how a system in which "people who decide who gets what are not spending their own money" is at all more likely to offer workers "decent wage[s] commensurate with their ability and value to the economy." Indeed, one need only look to the structure of teachers' salaries to find a tendency toward calculations that shun such distinctions (unless, of course, union bosses are taken as supremely valuable).

Like it or not, there is a market rate for a given job — what the performance of that job is worth. If unions wish to embellish that amount, they must ultimately do so by limiting the number of people who can hold it. Either prices must be forced higher, reducing the amount of work available, or barriers must be erected to enter the field of work. In the case of arbitrary price increases, the battle will be made more bloody for the shrinking opportunity. Exploitation will increase, as will incentive to behave as powerless pawns. In the case of a shrunken employment gate, somebody must decide on its shape and location, and somebody must guard it, thus creating an additional position of power, at which exploitation and siphoning can occur.

In any system that we might contrive to implement, some people will begin from positions of advantage. Qualitatively, these are the same folks (which is to say that they are equally human), whether they are businessmen, public policy intellectuals, union bosses, or career politicians. Whatever the basis for their initial advantage, I would prefer to see those strings in the tenuous grasp of men and women whose positions depend mostly on their ability to find work and ensure that it gets done.

How much more the pawns are those who, by their submission to unions, haven't even the leverage that comes with the threat of switching from employee to competition. Unionization may serve to enhance the income of a minority — especially when they are negotiating with people who aren't spending their own money — but where they become universal, they become imperious and oppressive. Where they are not universal, they squeeze their advantage not from the powerful, but from the trapped herd.

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I'm worried about myself and my family, the only special interest group that matters to me. As an individual I found myself powerless, fighting for survival against great odds. Taking risks, such as cleaning job sites where asbestos was present and straddling ice covered roofs for ten bucks an hour was what I did to get by. I am never going to be a policy maker or one who has enough wealth to control the well-being of my employees. It is not the life I want.

My position as a union employee provides me with a voice and some power over those that will exploit the powerless. Without a system of checks and balances, the powerful get more powerful, those without it sink further into slavery.

Your rightous indignation at my position is blinding you to the fact that you will never be rich and powerful, unless some miricle happens or you get extremely lucky. The illusion of the self-made man is giving you something to live for while being used as a vehicle filling the pockets of those with the real power. Idealists like yourself are a powerful allie to the people who control the wealth in this country. The longer you keep your head in the sand and believe in the fairness of the marketplace, the more they will make on your hard work.

Posted by: michael at October 8, 2007 12:47 PM

Awfully quick to get personal, Michael, and awfully keen to play the psychiatrist. I'd suggest that you lack the personal knowledge of me and the professional qualifications to justify either.

What have I ever said to suggest to you that I harbor even mild expectations of riches and power? You presume too much. My hope is merely to make my living doing work that I do not disdain, earning enough to allow some little relaxation, to gradually improve my living situation, and to create the possibility of retiring in some fashion eventually. That, to me, is an adequate vision of the "self-made man," and while only a miracle (or the devil's deceptive version) will bring great wealth, only others' greed and catastrophe prevent it from being a reasonable expectation.

As it happens — probably because I started late in life and have a college degree — I never made as little as $10 an hour in construction. Be that as it may, in the handful of years that I've been a carpenter, I've found a dedicated work ethic, an interest in learning the trade, and a willingness to invest in tools sufficient to secure advancement that would make a public school teacher blush. It's taken some good fortune, too, with my employer (although I previously had left companies that were clearly not going to enable the rapid growth that I needed).

You've picked the wrong man on whom to try out the rhetoric provided, as it seems, in a pamphlet for potentially lapsing union members. Thanks to the state in which I've found myself living, times have been harder for me than they might otherwise have been, but I'm making progress. I've no illusion of riches, yet I've a sense of my worth and the intention of receiving commensurate pay.

I'd offer the humble observation that you might do well to ponder whether something is blinding you into the action of supporting leaders who pay you with other people's money. It's fine to prioritize your own family, but let's not pretend that the cost in not sometimes tangible and terrible to others.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 8, 2007 7:26 PM

My response was not directed at you personally, rather the numerous people I have come across here and elsewhere that belittle my union membership. Sorry about the confusion.

Posted by: michael at October 8, 2007 8:17 PM
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