When Workers are Nothing More than Commodities

07 Sep 2015 9:20 AM | Deleted user

Another Labor day has come and despite all the tribute to the hard work of those who toil for wages, wage earners have been losing ground. Wage inequality continues to grow and we see more calls for higher state-level and local minimum wages. We may never resolve whether the minimum wage is a net positive or a net negative for the economy because the issue is steeped in politics, ideology, and competing economic models that are manipulated by different groups for their respective interests. And yet, these are all symptoms of a larger problem.

Of course the larger issue is economic transformation and how we deal with it. Industrialization no doubt resulted in the growth of an unskilled class of workers earning barely subsistence wages and plutocrats holding substantial wealth. As labor unions addressed the asymmetrical power relations between management, coupled with public policy, we began to see the emergence of a middle class.

Then with deindustrialization and capital mobility, middle class and unionized factory jobs were lost and replaced with low-skilled and low-paying service sector jobs. It isn’t clear that retail jobs require that much less skill than the lost manufacturing jobs. What is clear is that the problems of growing wage inequality and the decline of the middle class are really symptoms of the larger issue of the “commodification” of labor.

Labor has become nothing more than a commodity. As commodities workers are interchangeable, disposable, and expendable. If commodities, what difference does it make if paid $20 an hour or $7.25? In neoclassical economics, firms simply seek the cheapest inputs. As a commodity, labor is simply an input. If commodities or inputs, workers, then, cease to be people. In the context of corporate decision making they have no feelings and certainly have no needs.

Arguably the transformation of workers into commodities began with adoption of the Fordist mode of production — the placement of workers on an assembly line. This was work that could be done by anybody. The Fordist mentality, however, didn’t become obsolete with the disappearance of factory jobs. Rather we see it in low-wage and low skilled service jobs. Those who flip burgers in fast-food restaurants are the new assembly line workers.

So long as we spout the myth that these jobs are low-skilled we as a society can feel good about treating those who work them as commodities not worth more than they currently receive. Surely they are not worth any further investment into their human capital. But then why would we invest in their human capital if they are not really human?

In her tale of living as a low-wage worker in Nickel and Dimed , Barbara Ehrenreich tells of how these workers really engage in tedious, difficult, and humiliating work. These workers actually have more skills than we would like to believe. To call them unskilled workers, after all, is to further demean their labor. Because they are unskilled, they aren’t worth the wages they are receiving, let alone higher wages. Because we see them as unskilled workers, we don’t really see them as human beings that work because they need to.

We add further insult to injury by talking about what makes for an efficient economy as though treating workers as people would be anything other than inimical to efficiency. Again, we as a society can feel good if we can couch opposition to human capital investment, higher minimum wages, and just shoring up the middle class in the larger public interest of efficiency.

One wonders, however, how efficient it is when workers too poor to sustain themselves are simply unable to purchase goods and services. Has anybody wondered how it is that the term economic efficiency has come to be a mask of simple greed? Surely employers aren’t going to say in public discourse that they are opposed to higher minimum wages because it means they can keep less in profits for themselves.

It does sound so much more civilized to talk about how inefficient it would be if low-skilled workers — especially if they are not primary earners — were to lose their jobs. After all, that would be contrary to the public interest. And yet, it is easier to make this argument because workers have been reduced to commodities.

Now you might ask just what it is that we celebrate on Labor day? Of course, that would be a good question. Politicians will be quick to offer the standard bromides and platitudes. If we really want to have a meaningful Labor day, then we need a serious program for shoring up workers and the middle class. At a minimum, we need to be concerned about wages. That means strengthening traditional labor market institutions like unions and the minimum wage that served to bolster wages. It is because of their decline that wages have been stagnant for more than thirty years now.

The real work is for us to change how we view workers and their labor. We need to stop viewing them as mere commodities and begin viewing them as people who indeed have human needs. Until we do that it will be difficult to have a serious policy discussion that extends beyond the platitudes characteristic of most political campaigns. And until we do that, we are simply making a mockery of Labor day.

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