Don’t stop at raising wages

March 17, 2014

Workshop Talks

by Htun Lin

That there are two Americas when it comes to the economy and the wealth of our nation is no mystery to anyone. Everyone now knows the top 1% have essentially been the only beneficiaries of the latest “boom.”  Journalists and economists take pains to point out how this jobless expansion has allowed the investors to recover from their losses of the 2008 financial collapse.  Workers, though, are still left holding the bag.

Progressive politicians and labor advocates are suddenly on a campaign to highlight the plight of the working poor. President Obama issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage of federally contracted workers to $10.10 an hour. Governor Brown has pushed for a raise in the California minimum wage. Congresswoman Jackie Speier spent a night in a homeless shelter to highlight her discovery that even married couples with active full-time jobs can end up in a shelter.

Even Ron Unz, a millionaire Republican activist, has seen the light–circulating petitions for a California ballot measure calling for a two-step increase in the minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2015 and $12 in 2016, outdoing Obama and the Democrats.

We’ve been through all this before. What we now call the 1% used to be called robber barons.  There was no shortage of self-appointed champions of the poor then as now.

The Great Depression also saw the collapse of one financial institution after another. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a wealthy patrician, was called the great savior then of not only the economy but also the workers. FDR established a national minimum wage and a host of pro-worker legislation such as Social Security, and regulatory agencies promoting the right to collective bargaining and health and safety.


In spite of all these historical achievements, why do we modern workers still face the risk of falling into that perpetual category called the working poor? What happened to all the gains made by the labor movement? Today’s union bureaucracies are entering into labor-management partnerships to retain the dues of the remaining paltry numbers of their membership, because they have failed to organize the working poor and unemployed.

In the shop where I work, the mantra for the last decade, since restructuring was firmly established through the labor-management partnership, has been “just be glad you have a job.” It’s a job, they say, with pretty damn good wages. Yet never in the history of my shop have there been so many unhappy workers.  Why?

I remember a story told by Charles Denby, the autoworker who wrote Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal. A union business agent complained to him how, after he worked so hard to win such wonderful gains in wages and benefits for the workers under his leadership, the workers didn’t appreciate his efforts and remained unhappy. He wanted to know why.


Denby explained that, for every extra penny the company bosses gave up in wages, they more than made up for it by speeding up the production line. What he said some 60 years ago informs our plight today.

Workers are being replaced by machines, while the remaining workers attached to those machines are sped up even more, with the work becoming increasingly dehumanized. Some labor bureaucrats agree with capitalists that this is inevitable progress. When labor bureaucrats only ask that workers be paid at a “fairer” rate, their tacit agreement is: There is no alternative to capitalism.

What is a “just” wage in a system whose very birth and early accumulation was based on injustice and exploitation and whose continued expansion means further alienation?


Early on, Marx said that when workers abolish their status as defined by capital, that is, a class that is condemned to sell its ability to labor as a commodity, it would open the door to human emancipation. Existing labor bureaucracies want to limit the labor movement to improving the proceeds of labor as exchanged commodity.

We, however, want to transcend the bounds of that current existence which stunts further human development and leave behind the purgatory that truncates our humanity. We workers must not accept any who cherish dead labor, machines, over living labor.

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