The American way, or else!

By Lewis J. Goldberg
web posted December 13, 1999

Much is being said and written lately about global trade and labor standards as the World Trade Organization (WTO) is in conference in Seattle. Aside from the specific issues that are being debated currently in that conference, there is a larger issue that drives American influence in world trade relations. That is the imposition of the American standard of acceptability in labor laws on other nations and cultures. Here in the US we have a 40 hour work week with overtime pay and laws regarding the use of children, taking breaks, and even religious expression. These laws are a result of our cultural journey as a nation, yet most activist groups advocating global labor law reform seek to impose our home-grown standards on the world.

In hope of not digressing too much, it is essential to understand a little history of the labor laws that were forced on our nation before we examine the forcing of such laws on other nations. For us, it has been almost 85 years since the eight-hour day was made the national standard for the rail industry by the feds. It did not come about overnight, it did not happen when the unions first wanted it to happen (1884), but when all of America was ready to embrace it (which ended up being after WWII.) Even the imposition of federal labor laws all through the first part of the 20th century was not enough to change workplace culture or production schedules. Even the most reasonable law will be broken, and often, if not yet taken to heart. If you ever exceed the speed limit, even by one mile per hour, you are a law breaker (they'd have to throw away the key on me!)

We have all seen the pictures of child laborers from the early 1900's; eight and ten year-olds working in the mines, the glass works, the textile mills. To read of these tragic scenes, one forgets that behind each innocent young face is a parent sending that child off to work each day. We are to think that the factories send trucks out to the schools and playgrounds to round up strong, healthy children to sweat in the production rooms. Child labor was not a problem, in and of itself, to be solved. It was a consequence of where we were economically as a nation. If a parent were uneducated and unskilled, it is likely that he would have to send his children out to work at some point. Such has been done on the family farm before governments existed, and is still done today (and regarded with some romanticism, though it seems more agreeable to run a machine than to scoop animal waste.)

Today, it would be unthinkable for a company to insist that its hourly employees work a twelve-hour day without overtime pay (and threaten job loss for non-compliance.). At the very least, the employee would quit and find a different situation. At the most, there would be a lawsuit, with a huge payoff for 'pain and suffering.' We have come to this point through social acceptance of the labor laws (as opposed to federal imposition of said laws.) Were it not for the imposition of labor reform by government, the reforms would have come anyway. Government did not create the industrial age, nor the information age, therefor it is arguable that eventually the labor market would have become a 'worker's market' simply due to the nature of the changing workplace and the work itself, perhaps even more so than today (since amicable change always works better than forced change.)

Today we see many nations in the same position, economically, that we were in at the turn of the century. They have cities with skilled workers who live in filthy, polluted, and crowded conditions (just like America!) and they have country folk who live at a far lesser standard, toiling on the family farm or taking what factory work there is within traveling distance. Any time we examine someone else's standard of living we are judging through the fog of our own situation. Our standard of living includes cars, electric appliances, TV's, stereos, and cell phones. Any society not possessing these elements is somehow lesser in our eyes. This viewpoint supports the idea that ultimate happiness comes from material goods, and is a view that is constantly sanctioned by society and in the halls of Congress. Whenever we see someone without 'stuff,' we have to establish a program right away to make sure they have 'stuff.'

Many well-intentioned folk would impose an international solution to the problem of, what is for our nation, outdated (or non-existent) labor laws. There are cries to impose higher minimum wages (to buy more 'stuff,') shorter work days, child labor restrictions, and safety standards. These cries may turn into binding legislation, but, like a township of 500 federally mandated to build a nuclear power plant, such legislation will be largely ignored. Despite how callous this sounds, it would be criminal to demand that impoverished nations raise their labor standards. They are, quite simply, not ready for it yet. Our international 'do-gooder societies' will only serve to further hurt the people they claim to represent, and then clamor for more power as their policies fall apart in their faces.

International movements are a consequence of the idea that we can improve people's lives through collective efforts. There is not a single example of this philosophy that comes to mind that achieves this lofty goal without hurting someone somehow. The early success of our own nation should be proof enough of the power of the individual to accomplish and achieve when the obstacles of oppressive government are removed. As long as there are people who take prosperity for granted, there will be elitists who condemn others for not meeting their 'standard.'

Lewis J. Goldberg is the web master of PlanetGoldberg and a frequent contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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