Monday, January 19, 2004

Michael Schwartz: Inside the California Grocery Strike

Maybe this is just naive of me but I don't understand why firms should be morally obliged to pay unskilled workers wages suitable to provide a middle class life for them or to provide health benefits. The question isn't, as the author suggests, one of whether people ought to have a decent standard of living or whether health care is a privilege or a right. It's whether Vons, Albertsons and Ralphs are supermarkets or social service agencies.

It is not the case that the employees' only alternative to going on strike was to watch while their wages and benefits were cut to the point where they had to work 2 jobs to make ends meet. They could have used their savings from those middle-class wages to get training that would have given them the skills to compete for better jobs. That would have diminished the pool of unskilled labor and eventually have forced supermarket chains to provide reasonable wages and benefits for their employees.

Eventually--in the long run when we're all dead. In the meantime, instead of rehearsing the Old Left rhetoric about unions, corporate greed and solidarity of the Working Class, activists should be campaigning to get the state to provide the safety nets, social services, income transfers, training opportunities and, why not, help with relocation that would provide a decent life for these people without bullying firms into doing its work.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

A New Order: Imagining Life Without Illegal Immigrants

We need illegal immigrants because every reasonably complex society needs a cadre of intelligent, responsible, competent people, who have no other options (at least temporarily) to do its dirty work. Dirty work has to be done, and done reasonably well, to keep the wheels turning. But without large groups of people who are forced to do it, by discrimination and legal constraints, it would be left to people who were too stupid, irresponsible and incompetent to make a go of it.

When I was a kid blacks and women did the dirty work because that was all that any black person or woman, however smart, responsible or competent could get. Lily Mae Brown cleaned the house, and Bill Myers, who had elaborate horticultural theories and a complicated routine for dealing with my mother's peonies, did the garden. Jimmey, an elderly white male with a remarkably bulbous, red nose who wore the same oversized overcoat summer and winter took out the trash--irregularly. Lily Mae and Bill were likey overqualified; Jimmy had risen to his level of incompetence. As for my mother, with her degree in Classics, she was a school teacher--which was the best any middle class woman could do.

Now only those who can't, teach: the standard program for smart, middle-class women is law school. Teacher shortages are chonic, turnover is high and, apart from a few saints, teachers are stupid. Women who are smart enough to be nurses become doctors as the market struggles to provide better wages, benefits and working conditions to attract a sufficient number of competent workers to the profession. And, even with gross, ongoing discrimination, most competent, responsible blacks can do better than cleaning and gardening.

We need an underclass. Discrimination is rational because there aren't enough good jobs to go around and because bad jobs have to be done reasonably well. We need guest-workers.