Better Get to Work

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Published on: 2005.07.13

I read recently [expired link removed] that American workers are working longer hours than workers in all other developed nations, and our average hours of work per year are actually increasing, unlike in other countries, where this number has been steadily dropping. Is this a surprise to anyone? Also, our wages are falling.

This isn’t the first time I’ve read this, or seen it on the news. (The link above was just a quick find for today’s entry.) In the 1960s, apparently, Americans were earning more than workers in any other nation, except for Switzerland. Now, we’re seventh. And we’re ranked 12th among developed countries in benefits for manufacturers. There’s more; just click the link above, and read it.

Does the fact that we’re working crazy amounts of hours mean we have a great work ethic? Or is because we’re working less efficiently? And what’s the answer?

I’m a prime example. I’m in a white-collar job, salaried for 40 hours per week. But I usually work about 50 hours per week, not counting the work I take home with me. What’s my compensation for this extra work? “Comp Time.” But comp time means that I’m supposed to be able to take off work, and still get paid, during regular hours. I rarely get to use the comp time, because the job has to be done, and I want it done right. If I take three hours of “comp time” today (which I did), it just means I have to work extra hours tomorrow, in order to catch up on what I missed.

As far as “benefits,” I’m not really sure what that means. I’ve had a dozen different jobs, for half a dozen reputable corporations, yet I’ve never seen or heard a benefit. A benefit never slipped in accidentally and woke me in the middle of the night. I never ran over a “benefit” while driving down the road. I’m not sure what they are. I’ve heard that some people have “full medical,” or “full dental,” and other such things, that come as part of their job package. And I’ve heard of workers who have to deduct half of their paychecks to receive such “benefits,” and then their spouse has to work, so someone can pay the bills. But I’m convinced that these “benefits” are a Coastal Myth — in other words, they exist only in cities on the East and West Coasts. Because I don’t know anyone here who has them.

Some people say I should move somewhere else, try something else, go further in my education, etc. But the statistics say that these circumstances exist all over the nation. To get a good manufacturing job, I’d have to move to China or Mexico. All the factories here are either closing down or moving overseas. Drive down the interstate highway for a few minutes; you’ll see fifteen small towns that are dying because the factories are gone. So the folks who live there have to get less-paying jobs and work twice as hard to pay their bills.

We also pay more than folks in other nations for prescription drugs, and the highest percentage of our gross national product for healthcare in general.

One U.S. Senator, from the East Coast, has offered a few suggestions for government action that could possibly change this dire situation. They include:

1) Reform our labor laws to make it possible for more workers to organize unions.

2) Renegotiate NAFTA, the WTO, and other international trade agreements to protect workers’ rights and the environment.

3) Raise the Minimum Wage, and move toward the establishment of a livable wage.

4) Establish national health care (administered by the states)

5) Make the tax system more progressive, to allow working families to keep more of their money, and force big businesses and the wealthy to pay their fair share (“The more you earn, the higher your tax rate should be.”)

6) Reduce the influence of money in elections

7) Revitalize the electoral process

8) Make a first-class education accessible to every American

These are some of the ideas and “battle cries” that have been floating around the USA for the last few years; none of them is really new. But some of them actually make sense.

However, there are problems with each idea.

1) Unions are a good idea in many situations. But the easier it is to form a union, the more that small companies will suffer. And it’s the small companies that are hurting worse right now. Even large companies that currently don’t have unions, will cut and run at the first hint of union talks. (Think Wal-Mart.)

2) I can’t stand NAFTA, because of how easy it’s become to ship our jobs elsewhere. It’s the reason that your “customer service representative” doesn’t speak English when you call for tech support, and it’s why your blue jeans are now made from thinner fabrics with less stitching. Yet, without it, so many corporations aren’t able to compete in the global marketplace, and believe it or not, these companies are necessary to our economy.

3) The main people in favor of this idea are the people who currently earn minimum wage. But we all know what happens every time minimum wages increase: so do prices. And no one else’s wages go up. My wage, for instance, is a few hairs above minimum wage, and it won’t change a whit when the legal minimum is raised. All this would do is force more people toward the poverty line.

4) National Health Care sounds like a good idea to some people. But, as one of the 43 million Americans who currently has NO health insurance, I don’t support it. For one thing, it forces people to pay for services they don’t need. If I go to the doctor once a year, I’m paying the same amount as the family who goes 40 times a year. Doesn’t seem fair. (But I’ll wish I had it, when I need some big operation.)

5) The lower classes (me) are always crying out for the government to stick it to the big guys. It makes sense, right? Why shouldn’t the billionaire pay more taxes than I do? Why shouldn’t the largest part of the load be shouldered by the extremely rich, the massive corporations, and those folks who don’t have money worries? Partly because it’s the extremely rich who are writing the laws, but partly because no one will ever be able to decide exactly how much each income level should pay. For instance, should there be a class of people who pay no income taxes whatsoever, like the “welfare class” now? And should a high-priced lawyer be punished, merely because she made something of her life?

(One friend of mine suggested doing away entirely with the income tax, and using a “national sales tax.” Some politicians, to their own demise, have suggested this as well. I would be interested in crunching the numbers on this one. How many tax lawyers, accountants, IRS workers would lose their jobs immediately, if we did this, and what kind of effect would that have on our economy? How high would this “national sales tax” have to be, to make up for the lack of income tax? One possible benefit of this would be that people not currently paying income tax [drug dealers, prostitutes, tipped employees] would be forced to pay their share].)

6) Capping election spending has long been a battle-cry of the poorer candidates, I once thought it was a good idea too. If the biggest spender wins each election, then only the really rich will get elected, right? But there are far too many loopholes to cover here. What if each candidate is barred from spending ANY money on his campaign? It’s not that difficult for “unrelated” organizations to buy ads of their own, whether on TV, internet, radio, newspaper, or billboards. And you can’t bar everyone from buying political ads, because then our freedom of speech will have been chipped away that much farther. Such a blanket suggestion won’t work. We need a specific idea, that will close the loopholes.

7) There’s nothing the government can do about this (revitalizing the electoral process). People have to be willing to vote, to participate, to become involved in the process. And they’re not. Although quite a few teenagers have been ranting about Bush, so maybe they’ll vote, as soon as they’re eligible. Maybe not.

8) Making quality education available to all sounds like a really nice goal. I think it’s been a goal all along, since public schools were invented. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to name a place in America where no education is available. But when it comes to quality, there is disagreement. Some think that raising the budgets of schools is the answer. Others think constant testing is the answer. The fact is, learning won’t occur when the pupil isn’t interested in learning.

So, I’ve listed quite a few problems, without answers. You noticed. Good. I don’t have the answers, and, in my opinion, neither does the senator who posted the above suggestions. But someone does. There has to be a solution, or there’s no point at all. My purpose here is to open a few eyes, boil little blood, and wake people up to the fact that there is a problem — many problems. The only way to get the answers is for each of us to start thinking about it, to start looking forward.

I know I’ve opened a can of worms here, so tell me what you think. Try not to hate, because I’m trying to help.

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