The Myth of Manufacturing in America

Personally, I think the next president was decided ages ago, by people with far more money and influence than the average American. She’ll oversee the next 8 years of (yes, eight) increasing wealth divisions in America. There will probably be a brief economic uptick at the half-way mark of her terms. Things won’t change much.

(edit: how tragically wrong that prediction was. USA didn’t go with the status quo, or populism, or progressivism; but with racism, fear, and capitalism on steroids.)

The US will continue to decline as a world power, primarily because we do not invest in strong social nets that benefit our citizens through tax funded programs such as equal-opportunity education, social aid for needy families, on-the-job training and in-company promotion, paid vacation policies, requisite living wages, and labor protections for all residents regardless of citizenship documentation (if you protect all workers, regardless of their citizenship status, then it makes it easier for workers to organize and increase their wages and protect their benefits, which makes it harder for employers to fuck them over).

According to the July 2016 report from the International Monetary Fund, US growth is lower than before the Great Recession, and the USA needs to invest in policies that incentivize work, raise productivity by investing in infrastructure and innovation, and reverse the wealth income disparity.

Although the IMF survey says the US economic forecast is good in the short-term, in the long-run our decreasing labor force participation, low productivity gains, and increasing wealth disparity/ high poverty levels is going to fuck us over. The IMF report did not say “fuck us over.” It said, “solid continued growth hinges on addressing long-term issues of falling labor force participation, weak productivity, rising income polarization, and high poverty rates.”

Basically, if we want our economy to continue to grow, we have to stop fucking over the working class.

One problem (as noted in the IMF) is the lack of production/ innovation. Although we’re slowly rebuilding (largely machinated industries, now), the USA doesn’t have the infrastructure for manufacturing that it used to. Our factories, long unused and fallen into disrepair, are out of code and filled with machinery that’s out of date. We outsourced manufacturing to other countries for lower costs, and as a result are two generations behind every other manufacturing country.

I’ve heard people say the solution is to bring manufacturing back, and sure, I agree. That’s definitely one solution, and one we do need to invest in over the long term. What bothers me is when its presented as the only solution, or as though manufacturing alone is a panacea–like manufacturing and high wages go hand in hand. As though service work, retail work, domestic labor, restaurant labor–these things are somehow not “worth” high wages, benefits, and secure hours in the way manufacturing is. See, service labor is here, now. These jobs are available here, now. They don’t have to be “brought back”. The infrastructure doesn’t have to be rebuilt. All that has to happen is:

  • Increase wages to a living wage
  • Write schedules two weeks in advance–no more of this on-call shit. They’re service workers, not medics.
  • Provide benefits and paid vacations.

But manufacturing/ factory work is hard, and dangerous! It’s skilled labor! That’s why they got living wages, and benefits, and protections!–is usually how the arguments goes.

I kind of want to scream when I hear it. Because first off–that wasn’t manufacturing. That was unions. Employers didn’t give those benefits out of the compassionate goodness of their hearts. Workers fought for those benefits! They were dying in the factories and mines–they lived in corporate towns, where the employers paid them in “company money” that could only be spent on company grounds and on company goods! The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was an industrial disaster that helped launched the workplace rights campaign into the mainstream US consciousness!

Hell, since Reagan broke the unions, a lot of manufacturing jobs today are shit-work! Employers abuse their workersdeny them breaks, and nowadays will even outright sell the company and void the union contract/ gut the pension. It’s not like manufacturing work has some special protection from employer abuses.

Once, manufacturing was seen much like service work is today–as something low-skilled, that uneducated people did when they had no other options in life; not as a means to a middle class life or long-term job security. When contemplating the history (and present) of manufacturing, and the attitudes of people toward so-called unskilled labor, it’s almost laughable (in the laugh or cry way) that people look at our current situation–having outsourced all our productivity infrastructure and set our manufacturing tech back by generations–our national response is to say, “You know what? Instead of giving service workers living wages, predictable schedules, and benefits, I think we should do our damndest to get manufacturing back over here,” like that’ll help. Like it’s a magic wand that we can wave and make everything better. Like we’re not still actively fucking over manufacturing workers right now, in this day and age.

The manufacturing industry isn’t a magical bean that equals living wages and a middle class life! That was unions. It’s unions people are really thinking of when they say “manufacturing.” They’re thinking of organized labor, of all the things unions won in the manufacturing industries. They’re thinking of pensions that allowed their grandfathers to retire at 50, their bodies bent and broken from years of labor, but their finances secure. They’re thinking of affordable healthcare plans, of companies that trained their own workers (instead of requiring them to go outsource training, and pay for it out of pocket), and then promoted from within, and raised their wages annually according to cost-of-living increases. That’s what they’re thinking of.

But instead, they say, “manufacturing,” and think they mean factories and skilled labor, as though people who stand over boiling oil or work on warehouse floors with electric pallet jacks and forklifts aren’t doing skilled labor. As though people who deal with the daily psychological abuse of entitled customers aren’t engaged in skilled labor. As though the presumed lack of a college degree somehow, someway means the person behind the counter deserves poverty wages, unstable hours, and no benefits.

Fuck that. All labor has value. Someone who thinks that burger slinger at the fast food place doesn’t deserve a living wage? They need to go home and make their own goddamn burger. Spend their own precious time and materials making their own food. Don’t demand the labor of other people if you’re incapable of even respecting or valuing the fact that it is labor–human labor–that is being purchased.

All labor has value. Any labor purchased is purchased because, for whatever reason, the customer does not or cannot do it on their own. They don’t have the skill, the materials, or the knowledge, so they are buy the labor/ skill/ knowledge of someone else. People denigrate service workers all the time, but I tell you what–service workers are the fucking backbone of our society.

Service workers dominate the labor industry. Nearly every US household is touched by service work–someone in their family has worked, is working, or will work in the service industry. They face psychological abuse on a regular basis from entitled asshole customers, and often lack protection from management. Worse, service workers often find themselves on the receiving end of bullying and abuse from coworkers and management, as well, without any sort of substansive corporate infrastructure set up to help mediate the situation.

We’re told this is a “new, mobile workforce,” and that people don’t “like” to stay in one place, with one company anymore. Meanwhile, HR representatives in reddit threads discuss the problems with hiring and promotion: Companies will offer large entry offers, but small or nonexistent wage increases over time. They don’t tie wage increases to performance, either–the most effective way for an employee to increase their wages over the course of a career is to bounce from company to company, as an employer will “match and increase” with their entry offer the salary of the previous company.

Obviously, that doesn’t really work at the service labor level, where wages are set according to state hourly wages, and employees are hired and fired at the whim of management rather than moving according to their own needs or desires.

I smile darkly at the assertions that we in the US are a new and mobile workforce. It seems to me that our employers just stopped investing in us, and got the right to fire us when-the-fuck ever. It’s not that the American worker is “mobile,” (which sounds so free and breezy), it’s that we’re cast adrift.

We were told to get college diplomas to enter the middle class, and now people with Masters and PhDs are applying to service-level jobs. College diplomas are the new form of job training. Now most jobs have substantial job training; just an afternoon or a day with a more experienced employee who shows you the ropes and then abandons you to find your footing.

Bonus for the employer: They don’t bear the costs of job training. Too bad for the employee: They are thousands in debt for a degree they don’t need, because they’ll learn on the job.

We were told 401ks were better than pensions, and employers all shifted into 401k/ stocks, and now we’re all fucked for retirement. Bonus for employers and the banking industry: Modest cost savings! Too bad for the workers: No security for retirement.

We were told unions were stealing our wages, and employers want to give us our whole paycheck; that they want to negotiate employer-to-employee. Bonus for employers: No unions to negotiate with! Too bad for workers: No consolidated power and voice to negotiate with the powers that be.

We were told at-will employment was beneficial to both parties, because it allowed either the worker or employer to terminate an employment contract for better opportunities at a moments notice, for no reason whatsoever. It allows for a more mobile society, see? But in practice, workers don’t have quite the access employers do. Workers provide 2 weeks notice, and train their replacements. Employers fire, and escort their discarded employee out with guards.

This is a mobile society, yes, but largely not by the choice of workers. It was because, for the most part, employers chose to stop investing in workers. They chose to stop training them–requiring, instead, that workers bear the cost of their own training. They chose to stop promoting from within and offering good benefits–forcing workers who wanted higher wages to seek work elsewhere, bouncing around their industry in an attempt to increase their wages and benefits.

Basically, USA employers (by and large) chose to stop investing in their employees, and then have been shocked by decreasing labor participation, an increasingly unstable/ mobile labor market, and an ever-growing wealth disparity, then scratch their heads and pout at each other as they hrrrm and huuuuuhhhh over how on earth such a thing could have possibly happened.

Like, wtf? Big picture, people! Do you ever step back and look big picture? Ever? For a moment?

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