Opinion | Morgan Liddick: On Labor Day, a reflection on the work ahead of us
Ah, Labor Day.
The first Monday in September as a monument to “the social and economic achievements of the American worker,” as the U.S. Department of Labor’s website puts it, was first made a holiday by the state of Oregon in 1887. Four more states, including Colorado, followed the same year. It became a federal holiday seven years later.
Establishing the holiday did labor little good. Colorado itself was witness to some of the worst conflicts in the ultra-violent struggles for union organization and workers’ rights. From the fratricide of the disputes between industrial and craft unions to the bloody Colorado Labor War of 1903-04 and the brutal Coal Field War which culminated with the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, Colorado was central to the cause of unionization in the western United States.
By the 1950s unionization was accepted practice throughout much of the United States, including Colorado. With it came a set of attitudes and language about work, workers and employers that reaches down to us today — which is a problem, because the world which that language describes and those attitudes assume has not existed for decades. So when we discuss labor and its economics today, we are attempting the equivalent of writing a technical manual for a MacBook Pro using terms developed for the abacus and quill pen. Small wonder these conversations are fraught with misunderstandings.
Take the term “employment.” For a person of a certain age, this connotes an indefinite but lengthy term working for a single firm or person, in return for predetermined salary and other benefits. The workweek and workplace are fixed and the tasks are predictable. But to people my sons’ age it means something quite different: perhaps a series of related but quite different tasks, often for a variety of employers in various locations undertaken for remuneration that is renegotiable by task. Formerly called “piecework,” it’s now known as “contracting.” It is protean, unpredictable and not at all amenable to the umbrella protections of unionization: One is only as valuable as one’s personal skills.
There’s a further complication: The lower depths of the labor pool, where workers-in-training and those without saleable skills used to exist by flipping burgers, sweeping floors or stocking shelves, are being drained by increasing use of semi-intelligent machines. Eventually most non-artisan jobs requiring repetitive motion over many hours will cease to exist. Sooner, if the “Fight for Fifteen” crowd has its way.
Finally, there’s the “bad news-worse news” situation. The bad news is, as our Brave New World of work becomes increasingly complex and technical, success in most fields will require greater and greater expertise and training. This implies a widening gap between those with an inclination to this sort of education and employment, and most of the rest of us who neither understand nor care that deep down, the latest version of Windows still depends on coding from the black-screen days of MS-DOS. This is an intractable problem since, like the pernicious effects of raising the minimum wage by fiat, addressing the future competence gap through mandates will likely cause profound dislocations for workers and employers alike. Consider for yourselves the implications of power-grid software written by someone who thinks machine language is sorcery.
Then there’s the worse news: While institutions of higher education might step into the gap to some extent, graduates in science and engineering fields rose only modestly between 2000 and 2012, and remain at about 30 percent of all postsecondary degrees. International students account for more than a quarter of these graduates and rising, while over the last 15 years America’s postsecondary students have flocked to the softer stuff — business administration, English, general studies and humanities, psychology and sociology, human resources and the like. As a result, not only are they less and less prepared for the challenges the future workplace holds, they are more and more likely to receive a side of resentment and class envy from professors such as Ken Storey, a sociologist formerly of Florida’s Tampa State University, who recently opined that Texans deserved Hurricane Harvey because they voted for Trump.
If we are to successfully navigate the future’s pitfalls and promises, we’d better re-dedicate ourselves to the task of creating citizen workers who are both technically and constitutionally equipped to thrive, not collapse, under pressure. If we find that too challenging, well… the past is a graveyard of cultures who thought themselves too refined to compete for their privileged status.
The Tuesday after Labor Day would be a good day to begin.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily.
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