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MY FATHER, “FREEDOM OF CONTRACT” AND BACK TO THE FUTURE

April 25, 2015

MY FATHER, “FREEDOM OF CONTRACT” AND BACK TO THE FUTURE

Samuel Gompers and his Knights of Labor were among the first to attempt to unionize jobs in the 19th century. The movement had a rocky start as employers liked the then current method of having the prospective boss sit down with the prospective worker and determine what the worker’s wage was to be. The then prevailing Gilded Age view was that workers get what they are worth in the market and so it would seem to follow that, according to a recent contributor to Forbes Magazine, “Jobs only exist when both employer and employee are happy with the deal being made.” This is the old “freedom of contract” argument which held that any deal between employers and workers was assumed to be fine if both sides voluntarily agreed to it.

The result was an era when many workers were “happy” to toil twelve-hour days in sweat shops for lack of any better alternative, including poor children in brutal scenes reminiscent of the mistreatment of poor orphans as memorialized in Dickens’s novel, Oliver Twist, written during the English Industrial Revolution (which morphed neatly into our “Gilded Age” mistreatment of child labor later in the 19th century and stretching into the 20th, as we shall see.)

The Gilded Age view of freedom of contract as the ultimate arbiter of what a fair wage was ignores the relative position of the worker in the power structure, and I have personal information to back up this assertion. My father quit school in the 7th grade at age 12 to go to work in a coal mine in southern Indiana in 1914, over a century ago. This was before the United Mine Workers Union came to the rescue of miners with standardized wages and working conditions, a time when employers winked at child labor laws (if any) and before my father was even a teen ager! Can anybody reading this agree that my twelve-year old father and some prospective coal mining boss were on an equal footing when discussing wages to be paid to my pre-pubescent father to go down a black hole and engage in the very dirty and very dangerous business of coal mining?  If so, stop here; you have a closed mind.

Robert Reich in his blog points out that the Gilded Age (to which Cruz and Paul want to return) “was a time of great wealth for the few and squalor for many, and of corruption, as the lackeys of robber barons deposited sacks of cash on the desks of pliant legislators.” (His comments sound like what is going on today, though probably the “sacks of cash” are now deposited to  numbers in Swiss bank accounts or cloaked as “campaign contributions” to avoid detection.)

John L. Lewis, the longtime president of the United Mine Workers of America, came to the rescue of such miners as my father, and after much labor strife and political tumult managed to bring an understanding to the mine owners that their industry’s workers were entitled to minimum standards of decency and fairness, maximum hours of work (and time-and-a-half for overtime) along with a ban on child labor.

We sons and daughters of coal miners in our little southern Indiana town were very appreciative of the UMWA and the improvements in our lives that came about through union militancy when mine owners set up machine gun nests to “protect their property” during strikes and other such confrontations. John L. Lewis never backed down from their threats and propaganda. Indeed, as I have blogged before, there was some humor inserted into our appreciation of union efforts to improve our lives. For instance, it was said that people in our town during the 1930s rated “the three greatest men in history” as follows: (1) John L. Lewis, (2) Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and (3) Jesus Christ – and in that order.

Things have changed. Now with so-called “right to work” laws all over the map and corporate shifting of full-time work to temps, free-lancers and contract workers, an “employee” is harder and harder to find. Corporations like this new arrangement because such workers provided to them via contract are not technically “employees” and therefore fall outside the labor protections established many years ago by the Wagner Act, The Fair Labor Standards Act etc.

Union membership as a result of corporate purchase of statehouse political toadies with their right to work and other such ALEC travesties and employers who don’t have more “employees” than essential stands today at less than 7 percent of private sector-workers, and predictably, we are again hearing the 19th century mantra that workers are worth no more than what they can get in the market as we go back to the future.

As Reich correctly notes, we should have learned from our experiences a century or more ago that markets don’t exist in nature. Humans create them, so the real question is how they’re organized and for whose benefit. I agree. During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, markets were organized for the benefit of a few at the top, but thanks to those such as Lewis and FDR, by the middle of the 20th century markets were organized for the vast majority. After WW II, the economy doubled in size, as did the wages of most Americans, but since circa 1974 and even though the economy has doubled again and marginal productivity of workers is higher than ever, wages earned by most Americans have stagnated and their working conditions and benefits have gone south (witness pensions, corporate bailouts on labor contracts and unfunded pensions via Chapter 11 bankruptcy etc.). How could this happen? Are we awake?

It happened and is continuing to happen because huge corporations, Wall Street and some fantastically rich individuals have (through purchase) gained political power to organize the market in ways that make them richer while leaving most nearly all other Americans behind.

Where is a Gompers or a Lewis or an FDR who can and will lead us out of this wilderness of unfair distribution of our economy’s wealth before (as Piketty notes) the whole system (“unless attended to”) ultimately comes crashing down? Let’s hope such a messiah shows up soon as the hour is growing late – perhaps dangerously so.    GERALD    E

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