|Comments on the AC-T's online
forum indicate that it was already clear to most Ashevilleans that
our economy is producing record numbers of billionaires and
multimillionaires, as well as record numbers of citizens dropping
out of the middle class.
It may not be as clear that our government always determines
the extent to which various classes of citizens share in the
For example, at one time American business owners could own
slaves and pay them virtually nothing in exchange for their work.
Those in charge of government allowed the practice because, after
all, this class of people were considered savages. Of course, it
could be argued that the slaves weren't actually American citizens
and did not qualify for government protections.
Children, however, represent an obvious class of American
citizens whose welfare has been affected by government. For
interesting reading, Google "child labor laws" and check out our
nation's record during the early 1900s. At one time, all southern
states, except North Carolina, dictated that children younger than
13 could not work in textile mills. North Carolina kept its age
limit at 12 in order to have an edge in attracting industry.
Fast forward to 1938 when a liberal President Roosevelt and a
liberal Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which stated
that children younger than 16 couldn't work in full-time nonfarm
jobs, the minimum wage would be 29 cents per hour, and workers would
be paid time-and-a-half for working more than 40 hours a week.
This legislation not only protected the interests of poor
children (rich children didn't work in factories), but it also
established the 40-hour workweek as the American standard, and was
the beginning of America's affluent middle class.
This, at a time when we had 19.9 percent unemployment,
children younger than 16 were working in factories up to 70 hours a
Fast forward again to today, and consider the bottom 40
percent of America's workers — those in the service industries, farm
laborers, secretaries, garbage collectors, etc. Apologists for the
rich and powerful state that the reason their wages are low is that
they lack education. Nonsense.
If the bottom 40 percent of our citizens all got "educated,"
we still would need workers to do those jobs. Would we as a nation
still deny them living wages? After all, these "educated" persons
would be doing our hardest, least personally self-rewarding, and
often most dangerous and health-destroying jobs.
Face it. Controlling the supply of labor is the way
government controls wages — either low, high, or about right —
compared to the incomes of investors and business owners. Since
slavery and child labor are now illegal, our neoconservative
government is left, primarily but not exclusively, with
globalization and legal and illegal immigration.
By exposing American workers to the world labor market, they
have, in effect, forced them to compete with workers in nations that
have virtually no worker protections, especially in the Third World.
For jobs that can be done only within our own borders, the
key to controlling the labor market is to bring in desperate foreign
workers to do the work many Americans won't do — at least for the
low pay and brutal working conditions that are associated with
record corporate profits. And, of course, those Americans still in
those jobs see wages depressed because of oversupply.
There is no such thing as a "free market," unless government
defines it. Are businesses free to compete in providing the best
products and services at the lowest cost, while observing
established minimum standards for the treatment of workers? Or, is
the free market one in which the most powerful and unscrupulous
employers are free to drive out of business those who want to treat
their workers decently?
The people we elect to government always decide, and they
Charles M. Kelly is a retired management consultant living in
Burnsville and is author of "The Destructive Achiever, Power and
Ethics in the American Corporation," and "Class War in America." He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.