Tag Archives: minimum wage

For America to Thrive, Congress Must Become Migrant Workers in a Pickle Factory

In late summer of 1973, the cucumber fields outside the Smucker’s pickle factory in Medina, Ohio were ripe for picking. I was barely a teenager, not old enough to qualify for minimum wage of $1.65, yet my middle school teacher, who had packed pickles every summer to make ends meet, got me a job on the “no questions asked” pickle packing line. She drove by to pick me up each afternoon while the pickles “were running” in her old Duster automobile to drive the hour to the factory. We only made $1.10 but the work was steady.

Each evening, we arrived at the Smucker’s parking lot to start work at 6 PM for a 12 hour shift that was broken up by two ten minute breaks and a 30 minute lunch. As I got out of the car that first night of pickle season, I saw several hundred migrant workers napping in the shady grass alongside the lot. Their soiled clothing covered their skin that had reddened in the Medina fields earlier that day as they picked cucumbers that would fill the pickle jars that night. They would now work their second shift on the factory floor with us.

My first night, I experienced how the world works. I walked through the long, dingily lit factory that steamed of vinegary pickle juice to take my place beside my teacher and the migrant workers of all ages, perhaps 50 workers on each side of a large conveyor belt. As we turned and looked to the front of the belt, a platform loomed over top, mounting a vat of new pickles above the conveyor. Behind the vat was a large clock on the high wall that I would stare at perhaps a thousand times that night as the minutes achingly ticked by. At the top of the factory wall, tiny horizontal windows allowed the sun rays to fall as we started our shift.

The factory manager mounted the conveyor platform to greet us and to instruct us that first pickle packing shift. The vat would drop the pickles onto the conveyor. Pickle jars would travel with the conveyor on the outside edges. Our job was to pick up these long dill pickles with one hand, place them in the opening of the jars as they travelled by, and pop them into the spaces between other pickles in the jars with the palm of our other hand. We were to repeat this motion several thousand times, stuffing each jar as full as possible, until the factory whistle would signal the end of our shift at 6 am the next morning.

That first night dragged on in slow motion. The acid from the pickle juice shredded the cuticles of my fingers and the hard concrete floor took its toll on my back. My palm ached from the repeated pounding of pickles into jars as they sailed past me. I found myself staring at the big clock on the wall only to be shocked when only five excruciating minutes had gone by. When my first break finally came, the floor supervisor led us off the factory floor to the break room, an amber tinge with four walls and a concrete floor where we could drop our sandwich bags and rest for only a brief moment before heading back to the line. Lunch came too late that night and ended too soon to relieve my stiffened body of its aches.

After having been tortured by the pickle packing pounding for 12 hours, I was relieved to see the sun peaking out over the windows lining the tops of the factory walls. As the shift whistle blew, the factory manager appeared once again on the platform above us at the head of the conveyor belt. He was like an Aztec god as the sun rays from the window pierced around his large silhouetted figure while the steam from the empty pickle vat misted the air behind him.

He lifted two large pickle jars, one in each hand, outstretched above his head. Raising his voice above the clamor of the factory that was just beginning to ratchet down, he cautioned us on our first day. “See these jars,” he shouted. “We cannot sell them. You can see that they are only half full with pickles floating inside the top. When you return at 6 PM, I expect you to pack twice as many pickles in each jar. And the conveyor belt was only travelling at 20 percent speed today. By the end of the week, you will be filling jars at full speed.”

I slumped off the factory floor that day too tired to be overwhelmed by the task that lay before me the rest of pickle packing season. Yet as I dragged myself to the Duster, I saw the migrant workers once again lying down in the shady grass to prepare for their shifts in the cucumber fields.

A few things come to mind as I recall the pickle factory 38 years later. First, American business has been executed on the backs of undocumented workers for many decades. Perhaps we should determine and document our desire for their role in our economy so that we may discontinue the farce of our “undocumented don’t ask don’t tell” policy. Undocumented workers have labored years for the benefit of America’s prosperity under the knowing eyes of millions of American business owners, politicians, coworkers, and neighbors. If they have a role in our future, then our laws should legalize whatever role that they will continue to play.

Second, our two tens and thirty minute lunch factory respite was not the leisure to which America has grown accustomed. To find any comfort in such a work environment took a discipline that will need to once again be summoned if we are to turn around America. Our growing desperation can be reversed and our belief and will to thrive can be challenged. Yet to do so, our nation’s political and business leadership must now lead.

Third, interestingly, while punishing our bodies over conveyor belts travelling at only 20 percent speed, our team of pickle packers only filled jars half full, not enough to sell into the world’s economy. We had to quickly step up to the competition. By the end of the week, we had gained the skill to grab a pickle, position it with one hand, and efficiently pop it between the folds of other pickles in continuous motion, avoiding bumping into our comrades on the line. This determination to gain world class pickle packing skills helped us all survive the pickle packing season. America must get on with retooling and retraining to take back world class jobs.

After seasons of discontent, Congress is again trudging the factory floor on its first day of pickle packing. Americans know that Congress must adapt a conveyor of ideas to a quickening speed of deliberation and that it must adopt a spirit of cooperation that allows competing ideas to pack so tightly into legislative pickle jars that when they are raised to the sunlight of tomorrow’s competition, they bulge the sides of the glass with America’s future prosperity.

The 2008 and 2010 elections lined the legislative conveyor with Democrats and Tea Partiers that that must now work tirelessly while the pickle vats are flowing. The season to turn around America is too short for the bludgeoning that we have seen thus far in debt ceiling debates. America understands that Congress is still learning how to pick up pickles and pop them into the jars of deliberation. Yet, as we see Greece’s legislature unable to meet the austerity tasks before them, we are also anxiously judging our Congress’s ability to turn up America’s legislative conveyor speed.

The debt ceiling factory boss already lifted jars above his head and said “Go back. Deliberate with speed or the automatic legislative conveyor will overtake you to slash the budget.”

Congress established a super committee to bypass the acidic pickle packing process and to avoid America’s judgment. Yet we know that all of Congress must eventually feel the hard cold factory floor and burn their cuticles in vinegary details. If America is to thrive, both aisles must quicken the legislative process in the tinge of an amber factory floor to grind out win-win, cooperative ideas for America’s turn-around.

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Filed under American Governance, American Politics, Immigration

America’s Future Building Block #4 – Eliminate Minimum Wage and Fully Employ America….

While governments may choose to ensure that all citizens receive a minimum amount of dollars to consume, in the age of globalization, governments should not attempt to force this social welfare through minimum wage controls. Wages should be set by the market and any shortfall between wages and government’s socialized minimum family consumption floor should be made up by other socialized means.

At first glance, this assertion seems to support eliminating the historical gains made by workers against business’s exploitation. It seems to suggest that governments would thwart worker’s collective bargaining rights if they were to eliminate minimum wages. Yet these notions must be swiftly resolved if industrialized nations are to protect the security of workers jobs from their continued drift off shore. For America, minimum wage controls must be eliminated if America is to bring jobs back from overseas.

I hypothesize that the minimum wage, through its intermingling of two key concepts, is a poor attempt to force businesses to solve an American social goal. First is the concept that all Americans should by virtue of being born in America of having joined us through naturalization be guaranteed a minimum standard of living. Second is the concept that companies should only hire an employee if they can guarantee them, through employment for 40 hours per week, the minimum standard of living that has been set by our government.

This idea of an American minimum standard of living has never truly been established but we flirt with the idea in various ways. One attempt was the establishment of the poverty level as a measurement of President Johnson’s war on poverty. The poverty level established a family income that represented the ability of families to meet food and other basic consumption needs.

Minimum wage and poverty levels are fairly arbitrary and do not take into account actual cost of living differences between places like New York City and Jackson, Mississippi nor do they compare the level of consumption of poverty stricken Americans with the rest of the world, most who live well beyond American standards.

However at around 15%, poverty levels in America are once again approaching percentages close to those when America started measuring them in 1965. Since the methodology has not changed much in 50 years, the relative figures are consistent and demonstrate that our war on poverty has not been won. Yet the figures have been used by America’s legislation as a basis for multiple government redistribution programs and have since been ingrained in our political system.

The minimum wage is just as arbitrary as the poverty level and is not tied to it in any way. Earning the minimum wage actually places a person below the poverty level, yet it does create a somewhat lower floor than the poverty level for those Americans who are fully employed. And in the absence of collective bargaining, the minimum wage is an effort to protect the value of a workers’ worth. Why then should eliminating it be considered?

Prior to the emergence of the international corporate industrial state, growing American monopolies increased profits by reducing costs of providing safe and comfortable working conditions for workers as well as by providing low wages. For decades, workers collectively bargained for both better working conditions and for better pay. In addition, the federal government supported the collective bargaining process through the establishment of the minimum wage and by redistribution of corporate profits through taxation. Yet the creation of these defenses against corporate abuse led to antagonistic employer/worker environments that fed an examination of international wage differentials and an outflow of jobs to countries with much lower wages and workplace restrictions.

Many recall the showdown portrayed in Michael Moore’s first documentary “Roger and Me” in which GM gave its workers an ultimatum in Flint, Michigan; accept substantial pay cuts or accept a closure of Flint’s plant and the destruction of the town. Instead of accepting the pay cut, grossly misunderstanding the changing dynamics of the globalizing world, GM’s workers chose to strike against lower wages and the plant closed, devastating Flint. Globalization establishes the world’s value of a job, no matter the indignation felt by Americans for having to work at that price level.

Choosing to not accept the global price because of some indignation felt about the low value placed on international labor only eliminates the worker from participating in the global work place. Placing a minimum wage above the global price for labor only forces labor to migrate to other world locations that do not set minimum wages above the global wage rate. Taxing corporations above the global taxation rate to support externalized costs of higher unemployment that result from minimum wage policies only speeds the movement of labor offshore.

In the age of globalization, any one country’s defenses against corporate wage abuses are impotent against the international corporate industrial state without the support of other countries. While countries could band together as an international collective bargaining unit to defend the rights of higher wages for workers, many countries are willing to accept much lower wage levels than the United States. Those countries that accept a much lower wage rate will therefore gain the jobs that America’s minimum wage sends to them.

Can’t America let other countries have the low paying jobs while our businesses create higher paying, more skilled ones for all in America, making minimum wage obsolete? Even if America was able to create enough jobs above minimum wage so that all qualifying Americans could get higher paying jobs, the simple truth is that intellectual and physical bell curves exist in any population, including America and many Americans would simply not qualify for those jobs. In addition, the poor state of our public schools creates a dropout rate that could not begin to support such a higher breadth of skill level required for all Americans to have such jobs. If that many high paying jobs could be created in America, they would simply be left unfilled. No, if all workers are to be able to contribute to our society, then some jobs must be filled at global wages well below the minimum wage that has been set in America.

Does that mean that those Americans who are unable to fill positions that pay above the minimum wage should have to live below a minimum sustenance level that is now being partially maintained by the minimum wage? …of course not…. However, as I previously pointed out, minimum wage levels are not the appropriate mechanism to meet those needs. Our government has multiple social welfare tools at its disposal that should not hinder business to accomplish supplementation of income.

Because some Americans should have to work at less than the current minimum wage and must be supported by other means to reach a social floor, should high wealth individuals be forced to fully support their shortfall?…Of course not… But, the idea that continues to be suggested by defenders of Reagan’s trickledown economics of lowering taxes on the rich as a solution to America’s wage and job ills should simply be refuted on the silliness of its merits. It has proven to be a fallacy of pre-globalization politics that by its very nature is illogical. This once revered solution has been antiquated by both globalization and America’s promotion of greed as accepted driver of business.

History has with few exceptions shown that given more money to invest, wealthy Americans will invest it in higher returns of other parts of the world instead of relatively lower returns found in America. However, higher tax rates on capital gains and income of the highest few percent of American earners with offsetting tax reduction opportunities to invest back into America should coax our high wealth individuals back into responsibility for America’s welfare and stem this downright harmful trend toward America’s future.

If corporations are relieved of their minimum wage burdens, should they also be relieved of any responsibilities to sustain America’s workers who do not qualify for higher wages? Of course not…. However, mechanisms that force corporate participation should not incentivize them to move labor offshore. Business participation should instead be mandated to support government social policies through tax reductions for investments in infrastructure that support additional labor and through tariffs for products supplied to America that hinder American labor without greater, offsetting benefits.

Can organized labor be allowed to create wastelands such as Flint, Michigan by placing a stranglehold on global wage levels for jobs that have long since been pressed downward below minimum wage? Of course not…This last bitter pill may be the most difficult to swallow. While labor must be allowed a full participation in the corporations’ development of global competitiveness and must be able to transparently understand labor’s value and role in the corporation’s international success, any support for labor to thwart full employment by forcing excessive labor rates should be rejected as well.

If America’s objective is for all Americans to be fully employed and contributing to our nation, and for our country to support all workers with a social net floor of consumer spending that allows all to live in dignity, then more logical solutions than minimum wage exist. If only America can work through them.

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Filed under American Governance, American Politics, Full Employment