Dehumanizing people for the sake of profit is an old phenomenon that seems to have a huge capacity for adapting, using whatever guise is necessary to blend into the times.
There is something about the way we look at work and workers, whether Boeing engineers or fast-food restaurant employees, that can involve diminishing their humanity.
That’s always been true at the low end of the economy. The discussions we’re having in Seattle about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour are about numbers and data and business survival.
They are also about figuring out how much working people need to be paid so that they can pay their bills.
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All of that is concrete, but behind the numbers are values and assumptions about the worth of workers and about being human. What I hear in some of the resistance to better wages is a question: If the best job you can get is flipping burgers, then why should you expect to be respected as a person?
Societies have come up with justifications for peonage, slavery and child labor, all of which seem unjustifiable to most people today.
Those conditions still exist, of course, but sometimes people like us, who benefit from cheap labor, choose not to look too closely at the origin of our clothing or gadgets, in order not to feel complicit.
Modern Americans generally don’t think it’s right to mistreat people, to strip them of their humanity.
We’ve become more socially advanced, but so have the ways people and institutions have of devaluing some people to the advantage of others. That’s what’s going on in our economy today.
I know this may sound extreme, but bear with me a moment. I’m not saying anything radical at all, just that people still are often viewed primarily as economic commodities rather than as fellow humans. We don’t have to consider the feelings or aspirations of commodities.
Sometimes we go so far as to say they deserve less because in some fundamental way they are flawed. They don’t know how to behave, they’re not educated enough or skilled enough. Those things can all be true, but sometimes they’re just excuses that make exploitation OK.
I think what we are seeing is a broadening disrespect for working people.
Yesterday, The Seattle Times reported on reactions to a Boeing plan to transfer 1,000 research-engineering jobs out of Washington.
The jobs are held by well-educated people who’ve made valuable contributions to the company, and yet the story said, “Most of the local staff whose jobs will move are not expected to be offered positions at the new centers, where jobs are being reposted at lower-paid grade levels.”
You’d think Boeing must be up against the ropes, desperately trying to save itself, but the company has only said it’s “enhancing our ability to provide effective, efficient and innovative technology solutions,” according to the story.
Maybe Boeing has some good business reasons for its actions, but what I see is that the people in those jobs don’t matter to Boeing executives.
The problem isn’t just Boeing or Wal-Mart or McDonald’s. Our economy is just not human-friendly. Who and what is the economy about if not making life better for people, especially the ones who contribute their labor?
Capital and labor both make the economy go, but since the 1970s labor’s share of the income has been in decline, along with respect for people who work for a living, especially poor and middle-class people.
That’s not good for an economy that depends on rising consumption.
That’s not good for a democracy that used to depend on a strong middle class. It’s not good for humanity.
My hope is that increasing awareness of income and wealth inequalities, and the push for a higher minimum wage will coalesce into a larger movement to ensure the dignity of working people.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org