Happy Labor Day?

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Labor Day reflection: Fight for 15 or Fight not just wage theft but the theft that is wages

Happy Labor Day.

Or, is it?

You might have noticed that Labor is not doing so well lately.

Multiple recent studies confirm that while productivity has grown over the past thirty years, and even over the last ten, wages have slowed, stagnated, and declined. Recent income growth has gone overwhelmingly to the top one percent. The average CEO now makes 354 times the average worker, and four out of five Americans— eighty percent of us—are economically insecure.

But fast food workers have been visibly protesting their circumstances over the past year, including in a one-day strike last week, when workers walked off their McJobs in 58 US cities.

Calling for an increase of their wages to 15 dollars an hour, as well for unionization, the campaign has highlighted the difficulties faced by low-wage workers.

In New York, a Communities for Change survey of fast food workers revealed that 84 percent had suffered wage theft, and the state attorney general there has launched an investigation.

As Mazen Labban observes on MRZine, wage theft takes many forms—and occurs in many industries—where employers might not just directly refuse to pay wages, but (among other tactics) might require work off the clock, pay overtime hours at standard rates, take improper deductions from paychecks, or pay only with prepaid debit cards that involve inescapable fees.

Jenny Brown in Labor Notes observes that that the one-day strikes and media campaigns seem less oriented toward unionization than toward pressuring local governments to raise minimum wage law, support paid sick leave, or make other changes that might improve workers' lives.

Despite the potentially radical tactic of the strike, then, the Fight for Fifteen may not be about "building a movement to organize workers and fight bosses." Adam Weaver, on Machete 408, points out that much of the campaign has been funded and orchestrated by the SEIU, and that

Instead of a ‘march on the boss’ directed towards the corporations robbing workers daily, rather this is a ‘march on the media’ where the strikes serve as the visuals in a narrative of worker protest crafted by professional media consultants. Actions are scripted and run by the staff (themselves young, overworked, underpaid and working to meet difficult mobilization quotas) and the ultimate shots are called by officials in Washington, DC, not spontaneously by workers from below....Workers are brought into the campaign with little training on organizing, shop floor issues remain unaddressed

and Weaver suggests calls for change seem directed at "lobbying the same entrenched political system, appealing to change from above, and attempting to retool the existing system of profit, inequality and exploitation."

Similarly, Labban notes that it's not just that workers face a problem of wage theft, but that wage work IS theft.

For capital to exist,... The worker must perform surplus labor, labor in excess of what is necessary for the reproduction of the worker, which is realized as surplus value and profit.... The origin of surplus value is the difference between the exchange value of labor power (wage) and the exchange value of the commodities that labor-power produces. Capital becomes capital when it appropriates that excess for which it gives no equivalent.... Thus, even when the employer does not directly steal wages but pays them in full and on time, he still appropriates labor for which he has paid nothing: surplus labor, or forced labor.

A blogger at The Right to Be Lazy points out that both Labor Day and the International Workers holiday of May day have roots in the struggle for the eight hour day, the struggle for worker control over not just wages but the conditions of work.

The demand for control of the workday was grounded in the insight, now seemingly lost, that workers should benefit from the increase in productivity. Paul Lafargue, known for his essay The Right to be Lazy, stated in 1883,

A good working woman makes with her needles only five meshes a minute, while certain ... knitting machines make 30,000 in the same time. Every minute of the machine is thus equivalent to a hundred hours of the working woman’s labor, or again, every minute of the machine’s labor, gives the working woman ten days of rest.

In order to move toward a contemporary notion of such economic democracy, that writer proposes that "income has to be separated from jobs. The term defining this idea in the US is Basic Income Guarantee (BIG)."

The demand for basic income has a venerable history. Allan Sheahan points out that Martin Luther King advocated for it in his 1967 book Where do We Go From Here; that a 1969 Presidential Commission unanimously recommended it, and the idea has even been supported by conservatives like Charles Murray. As Sheahen observes,

To rely on jobs and economic growth does not work. Job creation is a completely wrong approach because the world doesn't need everyone to have a job in order to produce what is needed. We need to rethink the concept of having a job. When we say we need more jobs, what we really mean is we need more money to live on.

Today there are more than 300 income-tested federal social programs costing more than $400 billion a year. Much of that money goes for administrative expenses, not to the needy.

The U.S. ... net worth is 58 trillion dollars. That's an average of $185,000 for each man, woman, and child in the country.

As Labban suggests,

The struggle ... must not stop at the defensive demands for higher wages and must ... make the leap to the political struggle against capitalism: the struggle to abolish the conditions that compel workers to exchange their creative capacities for a wage in order to live. As long as labor takes the form of wage labor, as long as the worker is compelled to work for a wage, the worker's very existence is dependent on the production of the very power that "vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." And suck it does -- very hard.

The struggle against wage theft must become the struggle against wage labor, the struggle to abolish the conditions that compel workers to work for less than is necessary for their existence as workers, against the conditions under which the producers of food from farm to franchise cannot feed themselves and their families -- the struggle to abolish the paradoxical conditions that compel workers to relinquish their life so that they may continue to live. The capacity to work should not exclude the capacity to refuse to work and to revolt -- to liberate the creative capacities of labor from the shackles of capital accumulation.

If on Labor Day the workers are invited to celebrate work, let's remember the holiday's kinship with May Day, when workers commemorate the struggle to gain control of work, and in fact, to abolish it. 

For the Old Mole Variety Hour September 2, 2013.