Do We See Our Own Cracks?

Last week, we heard about the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh, killing hundreds. Reports are that workers saw a large crack in the building and tried to tell their supervisors, but were ignored and told to go to work under threat of losing a month's pay (which one woman said is $55/month) and according to other reports were also threatened with violence. Clear evidence has been presented that clothing for Walmart and other stores are made there, but the companies have hid behind a beguiling ignorance, saying, "We're looking into [whether our products are made there]."

As we continue our prayers for these victims and wonder how to help the situation over there, I fear that we will miss an important lesson for us here. Look again at the pictures of death and destruction. Consider the long hours people work under hazardous conditions getting paid an amount that's insufficient to support their families. This is what things look like when there is no representation of workers, no right to organize, no employee protection laws, and when big business gets to make all the rules.

Now, for some reason, when you say that, people will immediately point to the faults and drawbacks of things like labor unions and will have a handy anecdote about some unintended consequence for employers. Or the other thing you're likely to hear brought up is the compulsory union membership controversy, which I believe has been intentionally muddled by lawmakers. Court rulings have actually been pretty clear:
A worker could be compelled to pay only that portion of union dues and initiation fees used for collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance procedures. No worker can be compelled to pay dues for such things as politics, lobbying, and union organizing...Any union member paying full dues can resign at will and become a partial-dues, financial-core represented worker.1
To say that things are necessary is not to say they are perfect. I prefer that people judge something based on its essence or purpose rather than examples of its faulty application (like I especially wish people would do with religion). How else do workers have any power to negotiate with extreme wealth that wants to exploit them? Consider the many employee protections now in place in the U.S. that we apparently take for granted: overtime pay, health benefits, workers' compensation, minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and more. Do you think such things were thought of by business executives? Do you think employers, who didn't have to provide such things before, wanted to do it? Do you think they thought they could afford it? Every time, big business gets people on their side by saying that such practices would rupture the economy and shut down their business. Business has one goal: profit. Employees, in that framework, are a means to an end. It's abuse waiting to happen. I recently traveled internationally, and the staff at our hotel told us they work 90 hour weeks.

Oh sure, we hear those interviews on TV every once in a while where Mr. Goodnature from a local mom-and-pop business treats the employees like gold, but that is unfortunately the exception, and Mr. Goodnature is not the one getting tax breaks from Congress to "create jobs." Even with companies like Costco, known for higher employee satisfaction, it's still ultimately seen as "better for business."

American exceptionalism is once again the culprit for blinding us to something that is right in front of our face. We're used to hearing about this kind of thing from other countries, but we don't think it can happen here. We have a hard time accepting the fact that the achievers of the "American Dream" now holding top positions in companies could actually be part of a system that is fundamentally flawed. Successful business men and women are role models in our society. We think that U.S. entrepreneurship is automatically moral and that our businesses are going to do the right thing. After all, this is America, right? Consequently, many Americans have fallen for a massive lie told by politicians who have lobbyists in their ear and money in their hands. The lie goes like this: we have to give these wealthy individuals and corporations more tax breaks because they are the job creators, and our economy will grow when they create more jobs.

As someone once observed, "The bigger lie, the more it will be believed." What you're asking me to believe is that wealthy individuals and corporations, when they have extra cash on hand, sit at their board meetings thinking of poor, struggling families and say, "We need to hire more employees so we can help our citizens and the economy." Anyone with any business background can tell you this is bogus. When businesses create jobs, it's because they need them, not because they have more cash on hand and want to help the working poor. If that were true, we wouldn't be seeing all these part-time positions that offer no benefits. Employees are expensive. Businessman Nick Hanauer was very candid in explaining this during a recent TED talk: "Anyone who has ever run a business knows that hiring more people is a course of last resort for capitalists. It's what we do if and only if rising consumer demand requires it." In other words, even a loving, caring CEO is not going to add jobs just because he/she got a tax break. Consumer demand is the only thing that drives job growth. That's it. Nothing else. The very best case scenario is a moral business executive using the money they're not paying in taxes to further invest in their business; for example, a technology upgrade. But what normally happens is they take the money--the money we gave them to create jobs at the bottom--and give their executives an extra bonus (or plane).

The Bible has nothing comforting to say about these kinds of practices. "Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil..." (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The truly unjust part is that the "ruin and destruction" stemming from the love of money almost always falls to the working poor. In 2009, at the height of the recession, while working Americans lost their jobs, homes, and retirement funds, the top executives who were cutting their jobs were doing just fine. This is the kind of justice issue that comes with stark warnings in scripture: "Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice..."  (Jeremiah 22:13). We have very clear and graphic warnings, right in front of our face, that there must be a sufficiently powerful counterbalance to business interests. Things like safety and benefits are expensive and do not contribute to the bottom line. We're talking about the kind of people who believe that everything should be a commodity and have market value. Social Darwinism: survival of the fittest. If even American citizens are treated this way by American companies, how much do you think we care about workers in Bangladesh?

If that's the kind of world you want, go ahead and keep listening to the grumblings from businesses about how they "can't afford it." Keep believing the politicians when they tell you what's "better for the economy." One of my Facebook friends posted an article that praised the business practices of Walmart and said that our country's economy and policies should mirror what they do. Tell it to the people of Bangladesh. At least they saw their own cracks.

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