Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Must We Fight All Those Battles AGAIN?
On Sunday last, John Oliver devoted a major portion of his show (Last Week Tonight--HBO) to abuses in the clothing industry--most egregiously: child labor overseas. He noted how happy we are to pay a few dollars less for things--and how we just refuse to think about the reason(s): grotesquely underpaid workers in undeveloped nations, horribly unsafe working conditions, child labor. (Link to that segment of the show.)
And it made me think--and sadly so--that we have surrendered so many of the advances in human decency and basic fairness that we had won through battles--sometimes bloody ones--from decades, even centuries past. We don't seem too interested anymore in reading the history of labor, of civil rights, of women's rights ...
I don't have the space (or the energy or the equanimity) to deal with all of them. But just look around. Union jobs and membership have declined sharply. Child labor. Civil rights (as I write, there are violent disturbances in Baltimore--relationships between the police and residents in African American communities are volatile, to say the least). Women's rights (legislators can't seem to leave women alone). Public schools--good ones--for everyone, not just in communities with a sturdy tax base. And on and on and on.
So ... let's just take a couple. Unions and wages. As I've written here before, many of the adults in my wife's family worked for the rubber companies in Akron. Because of the United Rubber Workers, these families were able to live in nice homes in good neighborhoods, enjoy a vacation now and then, send their kids to college. Joyce went to Wittenberg Univ. with a Firestone scholarship.
And in my own life--the teachers' union greatly improved my standard of living over my career. When I began teaching 7th graders in Aurora in the fall of 1966, my gross pay was $5100. No health or other insurances. But with the efforts of the union--local, state, national--my pay rose steadily--as did my benefits. I got sabbatical leaves to work on my Ph.D., to write books. The school system helped me with grad school tuition. I now receive a decent pension.
And so I ask: Would any of this have happened without union negotiating (and, yes, striking)? Would the rubber companies--out of the goodness of their hearts--have paid workers so well? Provided them medical and retirement benefits? And other perks? Would school systems--out of basic human decency--have given teachers health insurance?
Now, of course, unions are fractured and fragmented. Imploding. Companies gleefully send manufacturing jobs abroad where they can pay and treat workers in ways that are unthinkable here. And I wonder: Why is this not a form of treason?
And so many jobs remaining here? Minimum wage (or lower). Few (if any) benefits. Here are a couple of links to some troubling information about the minimum wage, about union membership. (Link to minimum wage graph. Link to union membership.)
We don't do much about it. Because child labor is no longer visible, no longer somewhere down the block, but out of sight--in another country--and (could it be?) performed by brown rather than white children, we no longer seem to care. We're just happy about the $4.98 we saved on the new jeans. Or the great deal we got on our new smart phone.
It's vicious now. Because our workers are paid so poorly, they can afford only those items manufactured by other workers who are paid even worse--and who work and live in conditions no one here would tolerate.
Before I quit here--just another thought (one I've written about before, as well): We have got to try to quit judging others by what the most depraved members of their group are doing. Corrupt union officials? Murdering cops? Cheating teachers? Abusive priests? Dishonest recipients of food stamps? Criminal bankers? Lazy workers? Sleazy lawyers? And on and on?
Of course these folks exist. And our media love dragging them out onstage, as if to say, Look what these people are like? But these people are mostly not like that--the vast majority are not. We need to deal with individuals, not categories. I don't like being shoved into a category--most people don't.
In some ways, we're now back a hundred years ago--or more. And the next generations must once again fight the battles their ancestors believed they had won.
Anyway, I thank John Oliver for slamming such issues down on our coffee tables every Sunday night and asking, Now ... what are you going to do about this?