THE FEUDALISM OF LABOR
The Golden Rule of Business, according to a gruesome pun, is that those who have the gold make the rules. The irony of this old joke is that despite centuries of human development, this sad truth continues to apply in politics, business, and even religion. For instance, no matter how hard people try to improve relations between labor and management, business continues to function according to a model that was the rule during the Middle Ages.
In the feudal model of medieval times, virtually all power over the lives of the working class rested in the hands of the aristocracy. The lord owned all land in the vicinity of the manor house, while serfs lived in humble dwellings on the estate and spent their entire lives toiling for the benefit of the landlord. Everything they needed to support their meager existence was granted to the working poor only at the behest of the nobleman. Any benefit they received was derived from the capricious whims of the lord and master.
Those serfs who made the mistake of displeasing the master were promptly dismissed, not only from their jobs but from the estate itself. They and their families were forced out of their homes, often the only homes they’d ever known, and thrown off the estate. They could no longer receive any of the benefits they’d enjoyed when they were in the good graces of the boss, the landlord.
If all this sounds familiar, then you understand that no matter how many centuries have elapsed, business has not yet evolved beyond this archaic feudal model. In the modern world, not only do bosses hold the power to hire and fire people, but in the United States, they even control the amount and quality of medical services that employees receive and how much it will cost--if they’re even allowed to receive those services at all.
And just as it was in the Middle Ages, those who occupy the highest positions of corporate power control their own salaries and benefits, and they hold the power to limit the amount of money and benefits their underlings receive. In fact, the easiest way for corporate executives to increase their own income is to limit the amount of money that other people receive. Worse, executives who lay off thousands of workers usually receive bonuses in the millions of dollars as a reward for performing that odious task.
In the current system, this practice is touted as sound business economics, but it’s a disaster for the overall national and world economy and a terrible sociological model as well. The real cost of unemployment is both personal--loss of income, limited or no access to health care, depleted savings, increased debt, foreclosure, bankruptcy--and universal--wasted labor resources and an unproductive drain on the public coffers.
One change from the days when landlords threw vassals off their estates is that companies now give severance pay to some people, which means shelling out money for no work, and states provide a small unemployment stipend, again for no labor in return. The trouble is, unemployment benefits don’t cover the cost of food and shelter for the average family, not to mention the other costs of maintaining a decent lifestyle. And many U.S. companies add insult to injury with a cruel joke called COBRA, the post-employment health-insurance plan that costs almost as much as unemployment benefits and doesn’t even pay for most real medical expenses.
Just like the harsh landlord-serf relations in feudal times, the modern pattern of employment and unemployment makes no sense. It’s time for a big change in the way people are hired and fired and how they are managed as labor resources when they find themselves between permanent private-sector positions.
In the following section on unemployment, I detail a plan that would allow people who are discharged from private-sector jobs to work in their local communities for similar rates of pay until they find new positions with private employers. This would eliminate the negative impact of unemployment on individuals and communities and provide a fluid labor pool for community projects that now go undone.
And replacing employer-provided medical insurance that ends when an employee is terminated with universal single-payer health services would mean not only that everyone would receive medical care when they need it, but the cost of that care would be lower than it is under the current for-profit system.
Obviously, my plan would eliminate the costly financial burden that unemployment puts on workers in the middle and lower classes. What’s more, in the world I imagine, people at the top of the corporate ladder would no longer be able to profit by wreaking havoc on the lives of people in the lower ranks. On the contrary, as I explained in the earlier section on jobs, wages, and benefits, the amount of all executive income and benefits would be tied directly to corporate performance--actual sales and delivery of services--as well as the level of income and benefits granted to all the other people who work for the company. So the more effectively workers are able to perform on the job, the more both they and their bosses would benefit, and vice-versa. There should be no other economic model in place.
Perpetuating a negative employment model simply because that’s the way it’s always been done is just one example of why we need to formulate a completely new approach to all the problems of society. And we must make sure none of the so-called solutions that are tried end up causing problems for anyone, as so many of them do now.
The most important thing we must do is establish a society in which each person is able to purchase all the basic goods and services necessary for a dignified existence at a cost of no more than half the amount earned by the lowest-paid full-time worker on the planet. Only then will we be able to end poverty everywhere.
Only then will humans be able to build a truly peaceful society all around the world.