The Importance of Labor


Quick question: who said the following?

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

Labor is indeed superior to capital and does deserve the higher consideration. It just makes sense if you stop to think about it. You can have people doing work without getting paid in what we would consider money. The mountain man who lives in a cabin and hunts his own food. The freegan who scrounges around in trash cans. The gardener who eats only what she grows. These are all people who do work (labor), and don’t get paid money (capital).

In fact for the vast majority of human history, this has been the case. The very concept of being paid for your labor is something that is, historically speaking, relatively new, and likely something that didn’t exist until the rise of city states back in the day.

Since labor exists freely of capital, it is more important. The laborer can continue to work in order to live, but the industrialist who makes money from the sweat of that laborer’s brow won’t have that money if the laborer isn’t there or isn’t working. The world can keep turning without venture capitalists. It pretty much stops if all the farmers grow only what they need to eat and do no more than that.

As this is the case, doesn’t it stand to reason that our laws and customs should protect the workers far more than those who profit from their effort? Doesn’t it stand to reason that the factory worker should have more protections than the CEO? Or that the server should have more protections than the owner of the restaurant?

To what protections do I refer? I was born and raised in Washington state, a place with a strong, and occasionally dicey, labor movement. As a result, the state has the highest minimum wage in the country, and mandatory break times for employees. If you work eight hours, you receive a legal guarantee of two paid ten minute breaks and one unpaid half hour break. Workers are also guaranteed overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours in a week.

By contrast, the state of Arizona, where I currently live, has no mandatory break times. When I first moved here, I worked for a convenience store chain. On my first day, I asked when my break times were, and was told I wouldn’t be getting a break. On an eight hour job, where I was on my feet the entire day, I was expected–required, in fact–to work that entire shift without a break. This, as I later discovered, was common practice. Employers aren’t required to provide breaks here, and so therefore most of them don’t.

This is just a minor example of how employees are screwed over. Other things include minimum wages that are very minimum indeed, very crappy medical benefits, lousy, or non-existent, retirement benefits. Then there’s the fact that there’s no federally mandated vacation time. In the rest of the civilized world, including places like Germany, Scandinavia and even Iran, of all places, there’re laws forcing employers to provide employees with paid vacations. Germany, to pick one, has four weeks of mandatory paid vacation time versus our zero. Lest you think that increases unemployment because of the expense to employers, let me point out that they also have only 6.3% unemployment.

In fact, Germany, and much of the rest of Europe, especially northern Europe, is a great example of how labor laws can be passed that benefit the employees and don’t seem to hurt the employers. While places like Italy, Spain and Greece might be having economic problems, those problems exist for many reasons that have nothing to do with the labor laws, as proven by lower unemployment rates in places that have the stricter laws (ie: Norway with under 4%).

We don’t have much in the way of laws to protect workers in this country, despite the importance of labor over capital. What we do have instead are laws that do things like say that corporations are people. We have deregulation of the financial industry. We have politicians who fall all over themselves to assure us that they’re going to lower taxes on “job creators” to “incentivize” them to open new businesses and create new jobs. Apparently people only do that in times of low taxation, which is why no companies were founded in America until Reagan was president.

To fix this, I’d like to have a few laws passed. I’d like mandatory break times nationwide along the following formula: 4 hours worked = 15 minute paid break, 6 hours = one paid 15 minute break and one paid 30 minute break, 8 hours = two paid 15 minute breaks and one paid 30 minute break, and 10 hours = three paid 15 minute breaks and one paid 30 minute break. Anything beyond that, I’d say needs to be overtime pay.

I’d also like to have mandatory sick days provided by all companies. Say at least three per quarter. For people in the food service industry, the sick days should be limitless, however after, say, three days the employee should have to provide proof of illness. If they don’t have insurance, then the employer should have to pay for the doctor visit. This is way better than having someone with a communicable disease working with food you plan to eat.

Next, I’d have paid parental leave at a rate of about 80% for both parents for two months. After that, one parent gets to stay home for ten months at a rate of 70% of their normal pay. The costs would be split by the employer and by the government. I’d also like to have government subsidized daycare for working parents, especially single parents.

Then, vacation time. I’d like to have mandatory four weeks paid vacation time at a rate of 100% to be taken in blocks of no less than one week. This just brings up to the same standard as the rest of the civilized world. I would only apply this to companies of a certain size, say twenty people or more. I’d also require holiday pay for all federal holidays at rate of 100% if the employee is not working, or 200% if they are. Hey, Wal-Mart, you wanna stay open on Thanksgiving? Great, but you’re going to pay extra to do so.

Lastly, unions. Unions are at the heart of almost every healthy democracy out there. They provide workers with protections and rights in the workplace that they might not otherwise enjoy. I’m not sure exactly how I’d rework the system to make it easier for workers to organize, but it certainly should be easier than it is now.

Nothing I’ve proposed here is especially revolutionary. Countries that are doing better than we are do these things, and so we can, too. It requires only the will to do so. The Democrats are supposed to be the party of the people, including the laborers of America. They are, to a point, but only just to a point. The Republicans claim to be the party of the people, but certainly aren’t, given that they’re all about standing up for capital over labor any day. The Socialists genuinely are the party of the people and of labor, but can’t get votes in this country to save their lives. So none of the laws I’ve proposed will ever actually pass, or at least not anytime soon, but I can certainly dream.

BTW: Who said the above quote? That great socialist scumbag, Abraham Lincoln.

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