The 2022 FIFA World Cup, to be held in the glittering Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, recently made the news for the fact that thousands of workers will likely die building the new stadia required to put on international soccer’s marquee tournament. Backlash was swift and universal, but there was extra vinegar in the reaction from the United States.
Passed over by soccer’s shadowy governing body in its bid to host the tournament, Americans seethed with righteous anger over the abuses in Qatar. Such atrocities could never happen here, in the land of freedom and opportunity. Hard work without reward is the antithesis of the American Dream.
There is truth to this. Thanks to the likes of Upton Sinclair and legions of brave nameless labor organizers, people are no longer literally worked to death in the United States. But for too many, the decaying circumstances of their work are making it more challenging to get through life.
Macy’s recently announced that it would join several other national retailers next month and open its stores for the first time on Thanksgiving Day. Black Friday creep is just another facet of a trend that has forced more and more Americans to work on holidays like Christmas, New Year’s and Labor Day. Labor Day. Is nothing sacred?
It is understandable that brick-and-mortar retailers pressured by shareholders don’t want to concede anything to online shops, but no mall department store can compete with doing Christmas shopping in pajamas while watching ESPN. The internet has already won. Banks did not respond to the emergence of 24-hour ATMs by forcing tellers to work late nights. As Gutenberg told the scribes, it is what it is.
Vice President Joe Biden likes to stress the mental toll unemployment takes on people through his frequent use of the phrase “dignity of work.” Dignity is the polar opposite of what happens when a single mother is forced to serve turkey sandwiches Thursday afternoon in order to head to her job at a big-box store where she will try not to be trampled by the onslaught of ravenous bargain hunters who couldn’t even wait until Friday morning to buy things they don’t need.
In any market-based economy, the power struggle between capital and labor sets the tone for the entire enterprise. It is the great game of capitalism. Public-sector unions still have some juice, especially here in Los Angeles, but in private business, capital is now completely dominating labor.
A recent University of California at Berkeley study showed that the low minimum wage paid to fast-food workers costs taxpayers $7 billion to fill the gap separating what these people earn holding full-time jobs and what they need to survive in America. Fully 52 percent of them rely on some form of government assistance.
Nobody putting in a 40-hour week should need their fellow taxpayers to help him put food on the table on a consistent basis. While we understandably glorify the drive and dedication of those who work two or more jobs to provide for their families, the fact that this is such a common predicament is an indictment of our country’s values. It’s also a snapshot of the scoreboard in the great game.
Income inequality in America is at a record high. The top one percent of households pulled in nearly 20 percent of all household income, breaking the previous high-water mark set in 1927. As of this past January, only 6.6 percent of private-sector employees were members of a union, the lowest rate ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Putting its myriad pitfalls aside, big business used to at least be big in the literal sense of the word. Our large companies of yore were deeply embedded in the towns they operated in, building grand headquarters, sponsoring community institutions and most importantly, employing thousands of people in blue-collar jobs.
Many of our new corporate overlords don’t need such manpower. Forbes’ latest billionaires list is full of hedge fund managers and tech startup founders. These are as capital-driven business models as any in today’s world. Their honey is not produced via industrious worker bees, but through ideas, processes and most importantly, access to capital markets.
The founders of Twitter aren’t going to become billionaires (or near-billionaires) because Twitter turns a profit. It doesn’t. They are about to get rich because enough investors believe in their ideas and processes enough to want to buy in, and Twitter needs their money to grow as big as it wants.
This is how it is in many businesses. National chains or online stores have effectively priced out smaller shops around the country, and they are able to do so because they have achieved the scale made possible by outside money. Investors in a growing company will be patient at first, but they are going to want to see a profit at some point (or else massive reinvestment of what would be profit into the company, which is how Amazon does things). The path to profitability of least resistance tends to involve cutting payroll. Capital always wins.
In any event, record corporate profits and a soaring stock market are prima facie evidence that there is fat in the system that can be trimmed to feed the needy. Many of them can be found stocking shelves on Thanksgiving Day.