Submitted by Marvin Miller
May Day, May 1, International Workers’ Day, which originated in the U.S. but is celebrated mostly elsewhere, is an appropriate time to think about labor.
Throughout human history until very recently, the acquisition of subsistence has depended on the effort of muscle, both human muscle and that of their domesticated animals. This dependence began to change with the industrial revolution when people learned how to use non-muscular energy — wind, water, steam, and electricity. Now, most of the energy that people use is not muscular.
Most, if not all, innovations in production have had the purpose and effect of reducing the amount of labor necessary to produce a given amount of product or deliver a service. In the early industrial period, this increasing productivity of labor was directed toward increasing the quantity of goods produced, because this was a time of scarcity. It’s still being so used. When we go to a store, we see a great profusion of commodities, so many that the workers in the store cannot know what the store contains. They have to rely on computer memories for that information. It would be useless for the workers to try to learn what’s on the shelves, because what’s there today is not what will be there tomorrow.
Although scarcity still characterizes much of the world, it has been replaced by abundance in technologically advanced places. In such a situation, increasing productivity tends to reduce the total amount of labor required to produce society’s products. Human labor has been displaced, first in agriculture, then in manufacturing, and now in information processing. The available labor supply becomes greater than the market demand for labor. The effect of this has been stagnation or decline in workers’ living standards. Shrewd politicians have taken advantage of this stagnation and decline by promising to restore a past that is perceived to have been better than the present — promises which cannot be kept.
The official unemployment rate in the U.S. is less than 5%. Many people, on all sides of the political spectrum, realize that this number understates the actual unemployment rate. It doesn’t count as unemployed people who have stopped actively looking for work because they believe such efforts would be futile. It counts as employed people who have part-time or temporary jobs and who want secure full-time jobs. It doesn’t count as unemployed younger seniors who have been involuntarily retired by age discrimination. It doesn’t count prisoners as unemployed, but it counts those who keep them in prison as employed. It doesn’t count people working in the “informal” economy — illegal activities — as being in the workforce. And of course, people in the armed forces and the war industries are counted as employed, though what they do is unproductive and destructive.
In the age of scarcity, unwillingness to work was regarded by religion as sinful (except for kings, princes, lords, etc.) This attitude has persisted into the age of abundance. We see this in work requirements for welfare recipients. People who are unable to find jobs appropriate to their circumstances that pay a living wage are deemed idlers.
The work ethic, appropriate during scarcity, is inappropriate during abundance. What might replace it is a humanistic ethic, which regards all people as valued and deserving of their livelihood, no matter what kind of work they do or don’t do.