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Labor Just Needs to be Flexible

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Message Karl Wilson

US corporations pay some of the highest dividends in the capitalist world. That sounds pretty good; corporations sharing their profits, giving back to their communities, right? I mean, all those orphans and grandmothers cashing in those fat dividend checks.

There are two problems with this. The first is that dividends mostly don't go back to the communities where the profits were made, they tend to consolidate wealth for the one percent. The vast majority of dividends actually paid go to America's wealthiest. Those individuals mostly live somewhere else, i.e., profits are made in middle class communities--think Walmart, Starbucks, or your local utility--and then end up as dividends for the investor class concentrated in relatively few neighborhoods; the Hamptons, Beverly Hills, Zurich.

And then they pay 15% tax on it, tops. This, of course, is what Warren Buffet means when he says his secretary pays a higher tax rate than he does.The result is that corporate dividends are yet another way to ensure a steady stream of cash away from the middle class and to the investor class. That's true in a demographic sense, but also geographically; money, and the control of that money, shifts away from communities that need it the most. When some of it does come back, it is on the investor class's terms.

The middle class, in turn, is subjected to endless scolding. How many times have we heard that labor needs to be flexible? What with all the foreign competition, working families cannot expect wage increases; "times are tough," and we all must "tighten our belts" and other nonsense. These assertions are made in the face of record profits, record executive compensation, and continuing tax breaks for both the companies and those that run them. It's always about how labor must be flexible. Don't be a sap, be flexible and go where the jobs are. And retrain yourself along the way. See? It's easy. Now run along and show me that work ethic that compels you to tolerate the crap I heap on you.  

The reality is that an increasing number of Americans are expected to become nomadic laborers. Don't settle down and establish roots. Corporate America paid politicians good money for the right to close down factories with minimal cost to them even if it means massive layoffs for employees. But you can just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get another job, one in the next county, 50 miles away, and lower pay. Night shift only. And you'll be on probationary status as a newbie. Too bad about that commute; the extra gas money comes out of your pocket. Your seniority at the old job? Get real, you're starting all over again. At the bottom, with few benefits. And your lunch hour is now half an hour. Don't like it? There are 200 other applicants behind you. We hire those who don't complain.

Perhaps you have to move across country. That's where the work is, so pack up. And pull your kids out of the only school they have known. It was a pretty good school, too. Kind of ironic, because that's the reason you moved into the neighborhood in the first place. And settled down, so you, your spouse, and the kids could contribute and be part of the community. The company health plan was pretty decent. You put up with a lot because you didn't want to forfeit it. No matter now; say goodbye to it, and to the neighbors you won't see again. Your spouse will also have to abandon that part-time job. That's gotta hurt; (s)he won't likely find a better job where you're headed. But if (s)he does, it's almost guaranteed to be at low pay and no benefits, just like nearly all part-time jobs in the US. You'll just have to tighten your belts some more. Too bad about jerking your kids out in the middle of the school year. Just tell them that labor flexibility is the new American Dream.

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Karl Wilson is a recently retired teacher, tutor, and business owner. He spent many years tutoring, some as a substitute teacher, and a short time as a full-time teacher in a Hawaii public school. It was that last stint that did it. My long-standing (more...)
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