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Meet Joe Schweik


September 13, 2012

Ah, Labor Day. A day for barbeques and beach trips, one last huzzah for the carefree times of summer before settling back into the dull routines of school, leaf-raking and, oh yes, work.

It’s an interesting irony: the coincidence of the start of school with Labor Day means that an important teaching opportunity is frequently lost. Labor Day should be a time to teach about, and reflect upon, the tumultuous history of the working class in America, the difficult struggles that have led to whatever comforts and protections workers now enjoy and the enormous challenges facing labor in the future.

(Did you know, by the way, that 2012 marks the centennial of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, the Massachusetts movement that gave us the phrase “Bread and Roses?”)

There is One Great Commandment in present-day capitalism, what we might label the Corporate Imperative: “Maximize profit for shareholders.” To the relentless, remorseless and heartless logic of this rule, everything becomes fodder, and nothing is sacrosanct—raw materials, ecosystems, communities, relationships, public health and human lives. “The market knows no mercy,” as the saying goes, “and capital does not care.”

In a healthy, well-balanced society, there are three counterweights to this imperative: government regulation, organized labor and informed consumer action. Ideally, conscience would be one of those too, but discarding conscience seems to be a prerequisite for true business success these days. In the last generation or so, however, we have seen sustained and successful assaults on all three, as the power and influence of Big Business, Big Money and wealthy individuals have grown disproportionately, throwing the system out of whack.

How has this come to pass? Why have things gotten so skewed? I think I’ve spotted one of the key root causes. Check out the report, “The wedges between productivity and median compensation growth” (www.epi.org/publication/ib330-productivity-vs-compensation/), particularly the first chart in that report. (I’ll post it to my blog at skipmendler.wordpress.com as well.) The chart shows how, from the post-WWII years up till the 1970s, wages rose at a rate in keeping with increases in per-worker productivity. After that point, however, productivity continues to increase, but wages remain practically the same. The difference is pure profit.