Labor Day has come around once again with its familiar speeches about the freedom and good fortune of American labor.
Labor, in our system, is a commodity. That is a long word to indicate that labor is bought and sold and that the price of labor – the workers' wages – depend on supply and demand. There is little demand for workers who never finished high school. Their wages are low. Highly skilled brain surgeons, on the other hand, are in high demand and earn a great deal of money.
All this is familiar. It strikes many people as a fine way of assigning jobs to people, of deciding what sorts of training young people need, and how much anyone should get paid. A person, as it were, rents himself or herself out for eight hours a day. After that their time is their own to do with as they like. The market in labor is no different from the market in hamburgers or in toilet paper.
But consider this story. An older man I met recently works for a manufacturing company as an attorney dealing with inventors whose inventions this company turns into machines. Some companies will pay a small sum every time the invention is used. His company, he told me, pays the inventor a small lump sum and nothing after that. He regards that as immoral but has to do what his employer demands of him. In order to keep his, admittedly well-paying, job he has to compromise his moral convictions. Selling his skills and ability to work has serious implications far beyond the workday. He is selling something of himself.
But he could of course look for a different job, many people will say. But think about that for a moment. He has lived in the same town with his wife for 50 years. They have many friends whom they encountered when they were young, with whom they shared the joys and sorrows of the intervening 50 years, of raising children and welcoming grandchildren, and growing old gradually. Were he to move somewhere else, to work for a different company, his life and that of his wife would also be very seriously disrupted.
He is not just renting out eight hours of his day to his employer. By signing an employment contract he allows the employer enormous power to damage his self-esteem as a moral person or to disrupt his life by forcing him to move elsewhere and to interrupt lifetime friendships.
The employment contract is not an innocent transaction but has a major effect on one's whole life and on one's person. Think of all the schoolteachers who, since the passage of No Child Left Behind, are forced to "teach to the test" instead of doing the sort of teaching which they believe helps students to grow up well educated and prepared for the world they have to confront. Think of all the people who do a job they like and do well, who are then "rewarded" by a promotion to a managerial job which they do not like. Changing from work one enjoys to work one despises has a serious effect on one's entire life, and often on the connection to one's family. But it is within the employer's power to turn one's entire life upside down.
When we hire ourselves out to an employer we cede enormous power over our lives to those we work for. No, we are not slaves. But we are not free either.
Remember that when you hear this year's Labor Day speech about the freedom of the American worker.