Thursday, December 17, 2009

Communes or Communism?

Caveat: Wars have been fought over economic theory, and I'm no Nobel Peace Prize candidate (I haven't been doing this blog long enough).

What is the extent to which the employer/employee relationship becomes - or should become - some sort of partnership? Why do some hard-core capitalists talk like borderline communists when it comes to the role of the worker? Should the workplace be a commune or a totalitarian regime, or something in-between?

Having recently been booted out of the corporate workforce, I've had time to consider the whole phenomenon of work. Since I've never been a company president or owner, I can only imagine what that must be like. However, I've had over 20 years of being an employee from companies ranging from high-end retail to freight forwarding to church accounting. I'm no corporate titan, but I've seen a few things in my time.

What's Wrong with Illegal Immigration?

At the risk of instantly complicating matters, let's first look at illegal immigration. When my Republican friends began debating the topic several years ago, at first I thought the issue was cut-and-dried: people who cross our borders illegally should be deported.

However, I soon learned that many conservatives actually encourage illegal immigration, because it provides a steady flow of cheap labor. It's far easier to pay somebody below-minimum-wage salaries when the worker isn't supposed to be here in the first place. On-the-job injuries are dealt with easily - just replace the injured worker; to whom can they file a grievance? Complaints about low pay and bad working conditions? Just get new workers, fresh from the border, who are too naive or desperate to care about such petty things.

Silly me always thought that if you do the crime, you do the time. However, when one side of the Republican Party is pushing for closing down the borders, and another group is secretly pressing for them to remain open, no wonder President Bush couldn't get anything accomplished when people clamored for immigration reform.

And What About the Red Horde?

Where does communism come in? Well, consider the two major philosophies when it comes to a job. Any job, really.

One philosophy is that a job is something that a person does to earn a wage. The wage is roughly the value of the job performance to the employer. As long as the person is adequately trained for the job, and can produce what the employer needs, and a wage for that work is agreeable to both parties, then the worker does the job, is paid their wage, and the basic contract is kept as long as the worker is needed and the job necessary. The employee is an interchangeable factor in the overall productivity of the firm. Period.

The second philosophy takes the employer/employee roles a bit further. The employer still has a contract with the worker for the job that is necessary. However, the employer takes the extra step of factoring in the satisfaction quotient of the employee. The logic is this: if an employee is content in their job, is rewarded for extra performance, enjoys a relatively stable work environment, and is treated respectfully, the employee has a greater incentive to play their role with more gusto, take extra steps during crunch times, contribute to the overall functionality of the team, and take greater ownership in the quality and quantity of their job and its production. Am I right?

This theory holds that when the employee receives greater respect from the employer, productivity is greater, which means profitability is greater. This may seem altruistic, and it may require a bit of effort to quantify, but does it really run counter to economic logic?

Now, you can probably tell which side I prefer! To me, it simply makes sense. In looking back at my own work history, it's obvious when productivity was the highest - when I was valued as more than just a factor in an equation.

Isn't just having a job - where the worker is just a worker, a means to an end - similar to communism? Any worker fails for some reason, and they are replaced that day, like a malfunctioning component in an assembly line. The worker isn't expected to find any altruistic fulfillment from the work they perform, and the employer has no obligation to look out for the needs of the worker because that would cut into the bottom line. Sure, the Soviet Union liked to brag that communism provided solidarity for the workers, but the sheer magnitude of the implosion that was Soviet communism stands as testament to the long-term impossibility of using workers as interchangeable components. (It was also this philosophy that drove the rise in workers' unions during the Industrial Revolution, when corporate titans ran roughshod over basic human rights on the shop floor in their quest for bucks. While unions played a vital role in creating a stable, marketable middle class in North America, most of them have probably outlived their usefulness as they've overstepped their part of the employer/employee equation.)

Most people are wired to desire some sort of satisfaction from expended effort, whether it's waterproofing the deck, dispensing medicine, or running a company. Let's face it: a lot of jobs aren't very fulfilling in and of themselves, but value can come from affirmation. To what extent should this reality affect employer/employee roles? Does capitalism in its purest interpretation adequately compensate workers for the sheer drudgery or danger of their jobs? (I'm not talking about NYC sanitation workers being paid more than public schoolteachers!)

If profitability is the name of the game, doesn't it makes sense for company owners to try and nurture as much employee buy-in as possible? Is it really hard to calculate the economic benefit of finding, training, and retaining happy employees? If an employer doesn't care if their workers are satisfied, what part does morale play in the expense of lost productivity, employee turnover, and minimalist customer service?

In terms of illegal immigration - about which I'm sure I'll comment in a later blog - this means that the people one hires for a job may be low-skill, but that doesn't mean their contribution should be marginalized to the point where they're taken advantage of. You don't have to break the law by hiring illegals if you're paying at least minimum wage and providing a healthy work environment. That's just human decency, although there are degrees of "healthy work environment" that can range from the basic to the outright silly.

If you'll allow me to quote from the Bible, 1 Timothy 5:18 says that "a worker is worthy of his hire," which cuts both ways. Not only should the worker provide their employer at least the minimum amount of production for what they're paid, but the employer should be fair in what they pay their workers. So just because an employer can get undocumented workers to perform at below-scale pay doesn't mean that is the value of their work. If you're only going to pay somebody $4 an hour to mow lawns, and you get an illegal worker to do it, you can't say that nobody else will do it for $4 just because legal Americans expect the base minimum wage rate for the same job. If you don't like the minimum wage laws, then work with your representatives to change them.

Exploiting the Chinks (careful!)

At what point should you expect "buy-in" from your workers who are mowing lawns? And why do I keep using illegal immigration in an argument about corporate-think communism?

I'll answer question two first: when an economy runs on an even playing field (a concept at which some hard-core corporate types may scoff; although finding the valid chinks in the even playing field is what separates the men from the boys) the laws provide parameters that should provide protection from unscrupulous, harmful interlopers. Having all lawncare contractors hire documented workers means that a baseline is set, like in a sporting event: everyone knows where the boundaries are. The best team wins by playing within the rules and exploiting the chinks in the other team's armor.

Now, about the "buy-in:" that I can't tell you, although I used to know of a guy who was trying hard to keep his lawn-care business legit by only hiring documented workers at minimum wage. His guys liked and respected him for that, and he believed they were doing an excellent job, and his customers were very happy. However, as nefarious lawn care contractors continued to under-cut him by hiring illegal workers, money eventually talked to even his most satisfied customers, and his business began to falter.

How fair is that for a company owner who was trying to do the right thing?

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