Global Working Blues

Inequity Workers

Marble Falls        Reading the polls, one of the takeaways, and it’s a big one, is that for all of the strengths of the economy, many people aren’t feeling it.  Inflation in the basic grocery basket and housing costs are the major reasons. Prices are rising more slowly on food items, but rents are still holding persistently and rising, while interest rates and supply issues blocking homeownership.  Workers’ wages have made progress in the robust American economic recovery due to investments in job creation and industrial policy by the Biden administration, but taken all together, none of this is moving workers into a happy dance.

Workers have other issues as well.  In a casual Memorial Day survey, a longtime Home Depot cashier explained to me that she had turned down being a supervisor, even as all the other cashiers kept interrupting out conversation with questions for her.  Her view was, why take the hassle and stress.  She had been a nurse before becoming a cashier.  Some calm was more critical for her than cash.  At another stop on an errand run at a Dollar General, a fellow just off of work was grousing to the cashier there about having to work on a holiday, but only getting straight pay.  He wondered how that was right, but he was talking to the wrong person, since the cashier was swimming in the same swamp.  She could only nod and agree.

What politicians and policymakers around the world may not be getting is how workers everywhere are starting to question their contract with the demands of the economy, whether under robber baron capitalism or state planned and mandated exploitation.  In France, the prime minister is trying to make a case for working the same hours, about 35, in a four-day week, rather than over five days, and unsurprisingly not getting much traction for the notion politically.  On the other hand, Sean Fain, the UAW’s dynamic new president, has made the case for a four-day week in the US as well, but for less hours, as a banner labor needs to once again wave to lead union resurgence.

The Economist had an interesting report on increasing dissatisfaction and effective pushback of Chinese workers, where the work culture is frequently “grueling.”  The communications chief of the tech giant Baidu was forced to resign after having put out a video discounting the value of teamwork, workers’ health, and hours spent with family, saying only work matters.  The co-founder of Alibaba, another Chinese business colossus, touted the “996” work-week – working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, which also triggered huge reaction and complaints.  A recent survey in China, that The Economist quoted, noted that “Nearly half of the country’s university graduates now aspire to work at state-owned enterprises, up from 36% in 2020…”  Chinese courts have declared the “996” illegal, although it seems that decision is widely ignored, especially in the tech sector.  China’s longtime leader has called on Chinese youth to “eat bitterness,” while many workers are choosing “lying flat,” meaning walking away from the hours and toil of ambition, and instead selecting apathy and other interests instead of their careers.  Workers everywhere are tasting bitterness, and are spitting it out as quickly.

Alienation from the product has often been noted and discussed, and more often ignored, but it seems many countries and economies are ignoring workers malaise on the job at their peril.