Labor

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 6 min read

Today, it’s Labor Day, so this one is mostly for my US readers.

Today, many of us get to take the day off to celebrate and honor the contributions of the American Labor Movement. Ironically, many in the labor class do not get today off.

Depending on where you are, you might see a celebration or parade featuring members of local unions. You may even hear one or two nice things about workers in the media. However, tomorrow, we will be right back where we were yesterday, in a society that is antagonistic to the labor class and organized labor movements.

It is my sincere hope that, on this Labor Day, we finally develop some class consciousness in our society.

Class Consciousness 101

I’m going to attempt to simplify all of these concepts so as to avoid becoming too academic. When we talk about class, there are two elements to consider: wealth and role.

white concrete house surrounded by trees

We’re used to discussions of class being about money or wealth. We can easily understand the idea of upper, middle, and lower class. We imagine the different living standards that one might have in each of those classes.

We can also think about class in terms of roles.

In this case, when talking about the owner class or the labor class, we are primarily talking about roles rather than wealth. Being an owner does not guarantee wealth just as being a laborer does not exclude on from acquiring wealth; though these tend to map onto one another fairly consistently.

The difference is more in how these roles acquire their wealth.

Owners own the output of what laborers produce along with any of the equipment and facilities used in the production of goods and/or services. Owners pay their labor a percentage of how much the output of that labor sells for, and then keep the difference as profit. Simply put, they make money by keeping a portion of the value created by the labor of others. This can then be added to the money they make through the sale of their own labor. Owners can occupy leadership or board positions at companies, but can also be shareholders in a company who have a right to share in the profits of a company as a result of their investment.

Generally speaking, if you aren’t an owner, then you are either part of the labor class or the poor.

grayscale photography of man sitting on chair

You would be in the Labor class if your sole source of income is generated from the sale of your labor to others. This means that you will (almost) always be taking home less value than you produce as your owners take home the rest. When the sale of your labor fails to afford the ability to acquire the necessities for survival, then one could be considered part of the poor.

This has been a very cursory overview.

Today, on this Labor day, it’s a good time to identify what class you belong to in society. Even if just for today, indulge this exercise.

Laborers

If you find that you are in the Labor class, then it’s a good time to rethink how you operate at work.

You, and all of the other non-owners in your company, are all part of the same class in society. You and all of your cohorts would always be wise to act in solidarity with one another and advocate for each other’s rights. As we saw with the pandemic and the subsequent “great resignation” and “quiet quitting” fiascos, the owner class will completely collapse in the absence of labor to sell and profit from.

When given the choice of siding with the owners or your coworkers, remember that your safety and advancement is unlikely to come from the “generosity” of those who earn a living through reaping a portion of the value of your labor. There is an inherently antagonistic relationship between labor and owners as their self-interests are at odds. When push comes to shove, you are an expense and disposable in the drive to earn a profit. Organized labor movements have been responsible for nearly every legal protection or advancement in rights for workers.

Even if it’s just for this Labor Day, remember this fact.

Owners

Should you conduct this analysis and find yourself in the owner class, it is probably a good time to rethink how you operate at work. You can be responsible for reducing or eliminating the conflict between yourself and those you employ.

All you need to fuel these changes, are two things: empathy and equity.

Imagine if you had to do all of the labor that you are hiring for. Imagine if after all that work, you saw a significant percentage of the spoils of your labor flowing upward. Think about the model where you feel entitled to take some of the value of someone else’s labor for your own benefit.

What kind of company do you run and have you actively sought to remove the antagonism inherent in any attempt to maximize your profit through your workers. This includes lowering salaries, reducing benefits, or pushing for greater productivity gains while failing to share in the spoils of that increased output. If you are gaining something when your workers are losing something, it’s time to rethink your strategy.

Movements

If we’re to reduce gross income inequality and create healthier, happier, and safer societies, we need a strong labor movement. When the majority of people have enough, society benefits across the board. This means greater access to education, healthcare, and food, and a reduction in poverty and crime.

This can only happen when we shift our priorities.

For the past 40 years, we’ve given shareholders and other owners an outsized share of growth while labor movements shrank. It’s time that the pendulum swing the other way.

Happy Labor Day.

P.S. Another form of Labor

My wife and I are within days or weeks of welcoming a new child into our family. As a result, Becoming Superhuman will be going on a month hiatus while I attempt to be the best dad and husband possible. But until then, I’m going to keep publishing until I can’t.

Thanks for your understanding.

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