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Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Thursday, April 6, 2006

Down at the old plantation workplace.

One of the favorite arguments against any improvement in the wages and working conditions of US workers has been this: 'Business owners won't be able to make a profit.' Sometimes the amount of rhetoric cloaking the argument hides it from view, but it's almost always there. If you read history, you'll have seen the 'no profit' argument whenever there was a move to:
  • Eliminate child labor.
  • Establish minimum health and safety standards in any industry.
  • Pass laws establishing the right of workers to bargain collectively.
  • Get rid of the 60-hour work week.
  • Get rid of the 48-hour work week.
  • Force agricultural employers to provide decent housing and clean water to migrant farmworkers.
  • Give women equal pay for equal work.
As you can see, it's a very versatile argument. And almost always false, despite the assertions of corporations and big business.

As Terry points out at I See Invisible People, the latest version of this argument is being used to support the idea that the US needs a 'guest worker' program to help stem the tide of illegal immigration. In this line of thinking, the country needs immigrant workers to take those jobs that legal US residents aren't willing to work at. After all, even sub-minimum wages — as can be legally paid in farm work and certain other occupations — are a bonanza to people coming into the US from countries with really low wages, right?

Of course, the real problem is that legal US workers won't take certain jobs because employers refuse to pay a living wage for that work. And it's not just those jobs 'traditionally' thought to be the province of immigrant workers where this problem — and the argument for low wages — can be found:

In the Thursday {Spokane, WA] Spokesman-Review, there was an article bemoaning the number of qualitied certified nursing assistants (CNAs) that medical facilities are able to attract. Across the Inland Northwest, longstanding nursing assistant shortages are getting worse as the general population ages, experts said. In an industry notorious for low wages, hard work and high turnover, it's becoming increasingly difficult to hire and maintain qualified helpers.

Obviously, it's the laborers who are at fault for the 100% turnover rate, not the pay and conditions. "If we could only teach work ethic," said Dennie Seymour, director for workforce development for North Idaho College, whose comments were echoed by employers.

The chief problems are pay and staffing levels, experts said. In Idaho, wages start at around $6 an hour and range to a high of less than $9. There's no mandated ratio of staff to clients, said Robert Vande Merwe, executive director of the Idaho Health Care Association. Conditions are better in Washington, where pay typically is about $1 an hour more.
A more basic fix would work, too, said Seymour.
"The solution would be to improve the conditions and the pay," she said. "I'm told that's not possible."

You read right—it's "not possible." Paying a living wage, which would attact more people to the profession, isn't even being considered. Instead, a proposal has been floated in Idaho to waive the English proficiency requirement for certification to open up additional labor pools. Anything rather than paying what the market determines the job is worth. Providing intimate, demanding care for the sick and elderly is judged to be of the same value as flipping fast food hamburgers under far better conditions.

Capitalism is only the answer when it provides downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on prices. When labor refuses to go along with the proposition, find a new impoverished labor pool which won't upset profits. When those workers have been exhausted, increase the load of those remaining and blame it on character flaws when they are unable to meet the increased expection for slave wages. Is it a coincidence that the vast majority of CNAs are women?

A job is only worth what the employer wants to pay, not what the market forces demand. This is not capitalism; it's plantation mentality.

Actually, a plantation owner had to care whether the slaves lived or died. Contemporary employers frequently see workers as expendable and replaceable. If you use up one worker, just get another one.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:03 AM | Get permalink

Liar, liar, pants on fire!


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