Albion Monitor /Commentary

"Labor Shortage" is Wall Street Propaganda

by Russell Sadler

Any employer who refers to his employees as pond-scum has a serious attitude problem
ASHLAND -- American business is short-handed, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal -- which is your first clue to the real problem.

In communities with "rock-bottom" employment rates employers claim they cannot find qualified workers. Their managers must make hard choices. They must steal workers from competitors or train unskilled workers to do the work themselves.

Do managers hang onto profits or raise wages and benefits? Any company that loses money by hiring workers to increase production to fill more sales orders has a serious managerial problem, which is your second clue to the real problem.

Many employers claim they have no choice but to lower standards and hire workers they would not have hired before the labor shortage. "Two years ago, one of my clients said the people coming in for jobs were pond-scum," said one staffing consultant. "These days he says applicants are somewhat below that." Any employer who refers to his employees as pond-scum has a serious attitude problem, which is your third clue to the real problem.

Green and his crew lost their jobs because the government conspired with employers to reduce safety standards
Talk of a labor shortage while congress is debating immigration laws is thinly disguised propaganda for legislation admitting more foreign workers because "Americans just won't work." The trucking industry, for example, claims a shortage of truck drivers 20 years after turning a once-proud profession into a cottage industry of gypsies living in cabs and truck stops, sustained by pep pills in order to stay awake long enough to drive enough miles to make a living. The trucking industry wants legislation permitting Mexican truck drivers to deliver Mexican-made goods to American destinations beyond the border states to alleviate the "driver shortage."

For nearly two decades now American industry has degraded the American worker -- shipping manufacturing jobs offshore, turning full time jobs into part time jobs, "de-skilling" technical professions from nurses to engineers and generally telling employees they will be discarded when their work is done. Many of the same employers lobby for repeal of the social safety net that makes seasonal and part time work bearable. Many employers have abandoned medical insurance, pensions or any sense of responsibility for paying wages that allow an employee to support a family.

Profits have been diverted from wages to obscene stock options for management and stockholders who believe they have a right to a better life without working than the people who do the work that produces those profits. Many of these employers, their lobbyists, the think tanks they finance and their ideological bedfellowS, like the editors of the Wall Street Journal, seem genuinely puzzled when their hearty contempt for American workers is heartily returned.

Portland residents recently got a ringside seat for one of these degrading melodramas. The captain of a tanker docked in Portland refused to turn his ship over to a new crew he considered too inexperienced to handle his ship's toxic cargo. The shipping business has been shipping American jobs offshore longer than the American manufacturing industry. The only American jobs left are on ships carrying hazardous cargo. Now they are going.

Unocal of California had transferred ownership of its tanker SS Cornucopia to Keystone Shipping, reportedly to reduce crew wages and hire fewer ship hands. Captain George Green refused to turn the ship over to a new crew. He claimed it did not have sufficient training to handle hazardous cargo. Green was evicted from his ship by Portland police.

This episode could be dismissed as unions struggling to keep their jobs, until you learn the SS Cornucopia is carrying anhydrous ammonia. If this toxic chemical leaks in port it is capable of killing those who breath the gas. A leaking ammonia tanker sent 18 people to Portland hospitals with injured lungs in 1982.

Keystone officials insist the new crew is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Unfortunately, the Coast Guard can no longer be trusted as a reliable regulator. Batter by budget cuts, browbeaten by politicians, its budget often held hostage by a hostile congress, the Coast Guard is forced to accept weaker safety standards deliberately designed to permit shipping companies to hire cheaper, less qualified seamen. Captain Green complained his ship's new crew did not have any hands-on experience with hazardous cargo.

"We are going to put the crew through vigorous training and we won't dispatch the ship until we are absolutely sure about the safety of the crew and the public," said Keystone Vice President for Operations George Clark.

Captain Green and his crew were invited to work for Keystone Shipping for less money. They refused. The shipping company apparently prefers cheaper workers to those with experience. Green and his crew lost their jobs because the government conspired with employers to reduce safety standards so that seamen willing to work for less could qualify on paper without experience. Like so many other American workers, these sailors have been betrayed by both political parties .

Railroads, airlines, trucking, food processing, schools, hospitals, construction -- workers see the same pattern everywhere in the economy. Registered nurses, for example, are being replaced by clerks with the fancy title of certified medical assistant and trained to give shots -- they work cheaper than nurses. That is the free market at work, we are told.

Free market economists also argue the only reason for a labor shortage is that employers refuse to pay enough money to attract enough workers to end the shortage. Captain Green and his crew are just the latest workers to learn this labor market is not free. It is controlled by employers greasing the right political palms at campaign time.

Russell Sadler is a syndicated columnist who teaches journalism and environmental studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

American Reporter News Service

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor May 27, 1997 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page