The last line of the song “I don’t know how to love Him” in Jesus Christ Superstar is “What’s it all about?”. When I saw the musical as a kid, I assumed the line was about the play as a whole, and was an improvised line by an actor who was as lost as I was. But recently, as a much older man, I saw the play again and it hit me. “Yes, that’s exactly right. Nobody knows what the hell this play is about”.
This tracks a long history of me not knowing what was actually occurring in everything happening around me.
For example, when I was dating, apparently no conversations I had with my girlfriends were ever about the actual topics of our conversation. There I was, prattling on about why I forgot Christmas Day, when really, we were talking about what a total schmuck I was. Or, we’d seem to be arguing about some innocent comment I made about her mother’s weight, when really, we were also talking about what a total Schmuck I was. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t all that complicated.
Despite my long history of thickness, I think I’ve figured out what the ongoing United Auto Workers’ strike against the major car manufacturers is all about. And this is something that the Republican Party is still oblivious to. So, let me help them.
First, it’s not wages. Sure, wages are important, but like my exegesis on my prospective mother-in-law’s misplaced fondness for fondue, it’s not really what the conversation is all about. In fact, the car companies argue that they’ve offered significant wage increases, and by some measures they have. But a deeper dive reveals the problem with their offer.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra is paid about 30 million dollars per year, and that’s not even counting her dental plan. In the last four years, her salary has increased 34% while her average worker’s pay has increased only 6%. She now earns 362 times what her median employee makes.
This is in keeping with CEO and top executive pay around the country. Since 1978 the average CEO salary has increased (in inflation adjusted dollars) 970% while the average worker’s pay has increased a whopping 18%. Actually, given the disparity, that 18% doesn’t seem to whop at all. If Ron DeSantis is really concerned about exposing children to obscenity, he should worry less about Drag Queen Story Hour and instead focus on keeping the kiddies from reading the Bureau of Labor Statistics Reports.
In defending her…lets call it “generous”…salary, Ms. Barra is quick to note that much of her compensation is based on the company’s performance. If the company does better, she does better. And right now, GM, and the auto industry writ large, is experiencing record profits.
Fair enough. But she doesn’t explain why her company’s workers (the actual job-doers) shouldn’t receive a proportionally identical bump in pay. Her pay went up 36% in four years, and coincidentally, that is EXACTLY the increase the UAW is asking for over the next four years. This seems especially fair, given that auto workers made significant sacrifices so that their companies could survive the great recession beginning in 2008.
Republican politicians, particularly the aspiring presidents, have criticized the union a “greedy” and “short sighted” and threatened that all of their jobs will go to China (or “GIIIINA” since it was Trump saying it) if they don’t accept lower pay.
The unions are also asking for a 32 hour work-week. There are many sound economic reasons for companies to adopt a shorter work week. Numerous studies show that working four days per week instead of five can dramatically improve physical and mental health, and make workers feel better about their jobs and thus increase productivity plus lower employee turnover and sick days.
But not everything in the world is economics. Sometimes it’s pie. Economics and pie. Oh, and also, quality of life. Studies also show that workers with shorter work weeks have few mental health issues, less stress, less anxiety, better relationship outcomes and more time to spend with their kids, until those kids are teenagers, then more time to follow them on whatever spying app they’ve managed to place on their kids’ phones.
All of these studies have led to many companies transitioning to shorter work weeks. Sadly however, almost all of those benefits have been going to white collar workers and professionals. People who work on assembly lines have seen almost none of these changes.
Tim Scott, is the “optimistic” GOP presidential contender. We know this because he tells us he’s the optimistic one. And because…well…actually, that’s about it. He optimistically told an interviewer last weekend that this shorter work week was an effort to reward laziness. “You’ve got to work!” he helpfully told us as he packed up to eat more corn dogs at some Iowa town fair.
But a shorter work week and higher wages are not about people wanting to do the least they can for the most they can get. Most workers take pride in their work and want to do a great job.
Even me! And believe me, I typically hold myself up as an example for NOTHING. One time, when I worked at Burger King as a teenager, I severely burnt my crotch by shoving whoppers down my pants to steal them at the end of a shift. I am not a paragon of anything. But from fast food worker, to lawyer, to politician, to entrepreneur, I’ve always wanted the product I produced to be something I could be proud of. (My crotch is now fine. Thanks for asking.)
Tim Scott is typical of the Republican view of working people. Workers are lazy, have to be forced to do anything, and financial investments and rewards are best given to top brass who make the company run. But Tim Scott and his co-partisans are wrong.
If a company does well, and the CEO gets a 34% bump and the workers get 6%, or if executives are given perks and work-from-home or shorter work week options that line workers aren’t, that is a statement which goes beyond dollars and cents. It goes to the relative worth of human beings.
And that’s what the UAW strike is all about. To the casual listener it may sound like an argument over pay or hours. But what’s really going on is workers saying “I am a person. And I am just as valuable as you and I deserve the same consideration as you do. If the product we’ve built makes enough money to give you a 34% raise, then I deserve a 34% raise. If you get to spend more time with your family, I get to spend more time with my family. I am not your servant, I am your partner. We are equals, and we are in this together.”
In other words, this strike may seem to be able purchasing power. But it’s really about dignity. And dignity is far more permanent and far more powerful.