Kitchen Table Economics

The Shaming of Labor

When I was a kid the American worker was celebrated–at least publicly. The American Dream actually existed for a large number of working folks. People worked factory or office jobs and brought home enough in their paychecks to buy a house, renovate it, take vacations, and even save for the future.

Pop culture portrayed workers as heroes. Rock songs extolled the virtue of hard work. Television shows featured protagonists who took pride in their jobs and careers. Movies focused on industry from labor’s perspective and told stories of a merit-based rise from the mailroom to the executive suite.

Then, just when workers were enjoying a near comic boon in the ‘80s, the political and policy shit toward the supply side occurred. President Ronald Reagan pushed a message that investment in corporate welfare would trickle down to the middle and working classes. Unions were simultaneously vilified and attacked by the Reagan administration and a new conservative movement that was committed to further concentrate wealth to a shrinking fraction of the wealthiest Americans.

More disturbing than the systematic assault on the working class by the establishment and political factions was the increasingly negative attitude among the populous toward the working class and working poor. As the wealth gap continued to expand at an embarrassing rate more and more workers, feeling the pain of stagnated wages and rising costs, began to scapegoat those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Folks voted against their own interests to enable lawmakers and politicians to inflict pain on the most disadvantaged. They began supporting policies that disproportionately benefited the wealthy, further widening the financial chasm between capital and labor. For the sake of political expediency, they turned on the same labor unions who fought for and won the rights and benefits most Americans take for granted.

These attitudes persist today. Instead of considering the systematic trends and policies that have kept wages low for over four decades many Americans choose to blame those with the least power to impact the economy. It is easy to focus your ire on those in the ranks of poverty on claims that they are gaming the system. It is easy to oppose a raise in the minimum wage, following a false narrative that a living wage will lift the unemployment rate. It is easy to scapegoat immigrants and low income workers. It is much harder, it seems, to look at the wealthy and well-connected and question policies designed to keep the scales of opportunity tipped to favor the haves over the have-nots.

It’s difficult enough in the private sector to stand up for one’s own interests and call out inequities. Most businesses and corporations are good at limiting upward mobility and checking the desire for financial compensation commensurate with one’s experience and skill set. It’s even harder in the public sector. Public education organizations have strict policies designed to constrain budgets to a specific growth rate. Annual budgets are presented with proud attention paid to how well a district or organization underpaid its employees or curbed their benefits. I have attended meetings where employees dutifully accept the shame and guilt that our meager compensation represents a certain percentage of the total budget. This institutionalized self-loathing is troubling but all too common.

Worse yet, if anyone attempts to stand up for labor and demand more than the crumbs we are currently afforded they are accused of envy and greed. Mention income inequality and you’ll be labeled a socialist bent on redistributing wealth to the undeserving. The words distribution of wealth, by the way, have a specific definition when it comes to economics. They do not connote grabbing money from the hands of one person and doling it out to others. It merely means the way we look at how wealth is broken down across different groups of Americans.

Calling attention to the vast gap between the wealthiest and the working class is nothing to be ashamed of. Neither is putting in a day’s work and asking for a day’s pay. We once had a social compact that honored labor and its contributions. We should demand that the value of labor be recognized. We should again find pride in our jobs and careers. We have earned it.

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