Albion Monitor /Commentary

On The Intel Assembly Line, Sunday's a 12-Hr. Workday

by Russell Sadler

Economists say The Information Age will be the salvation of the American Dream, but the facts suggest something else
(AR) ASHLAND -- If you plan to picnic, camp at the beach or the lake or just spend time in the yard barbecuing with family and friends over the Labor Day weekend, consider yourself among the lucky ones. A growing number of laboring people labor on the national holiday ironically set aside to honor laboring people.

These are not the police, the firefighters, the teevee anchors and newspaper reporters, actors, telephone operators or even the waiters and cooks we rely on when the rest of us are off. These are the growing army of service and retail workers who labor on Labor Day so large corporate chain stores can make money while the rest of us shop 'til we drop to celebrate the holiday by running credit cards deeper in debt. The frenetic shopping is supposed to make the Middle Class forget its declining standard of living.

In the middle of the United Parcel Service strike, those wild and crazy guys at Fruit-of-the-Loom announced they were closing seven manufacturing plants in the American South and shipping the jobs offshore to countries where labor is cheaper. Ironically, the Southern states courted northern manufacturers in the 1960s openly boasting their low-wage workers and right to work laws that restricted unions assured lower labor costs.

Today, the workers in those Southern Fruit-of-the-Loom plants make $10 an hour. Now, though, your Fruit-of-the-Loom undies will be made in Indonesia where 12-year-olds work alongside their parents for $5 a day. A wise economist observed you cannot compete with slaves without becoming slaves.

We will not become slaves, intone the fashionable economists. Americans do not need to make things anymore. Americans will create and process information. The Information Age will be the salvation of the American Dream. The facts suggest something else.

The 12-hour days will not be limited to the high technology industry -- the retail and service industries are trying to force society into a 24-hour world
Working people routinely working on holidays is simply a sign of the Brave New World to come. The hard-won landmarks of labor we take for granted -- the 8-hour day, the 40-hour week, time and a half for overtime -- are all in jeopardy as business moves deliberately and inexorably to a 24-hour day.

The electronics industry has been quietly lobbying to repeal the present wage/hour laws in the name of employee "flexibility." Intel let the cat out of the bag in a memo to Pierce Community College officials in Tacoma, Washington who were training nearly 1,000 workers for a chip manufacturing plant.

Under the Tacoma plan, entry-level employees will not work from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. five days a week. Intel wants assembly line workers to work three 12-hour shifts one week and four 12-hour shifts the following week. In addition to alternating day and night shifts, half the assembly line workers would work Sunday, Monday and Tuesday while the other half works Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. All employees must work a Saturday shift every other week. Wages are a straight $7 an hour.

And, despite talk of "employee flexibility" there will be no choice. Only employees willing to work 12-hour days will be hired. Nor will the arrangement be limited to high technology industry. These are attractive employment arrangements for the retail and service industries trying to force society into a 24-hour world.

America's corporate lobbyists are telling your legislators American business leads the world these days because it is free to innovate, restructure and relocate no matter how distasteful the downsizing, dislocation and wage disparity between workers and managers.

This, say the lobbyists, is necessary to avoid being held back like European nations with their uniform pay scales, strong unions, unemployment insurance, fringe benefits and regulations that limit shopping hours. This discussion is conducted between lobbyists and legislators as if some invisible hand gives working people no choice in matters of their hours,wages or working conditions. There is nothing inevitable about the present fashion of rigging the labor market to force people work longer for the same money or less.

Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" is neither invisible nor divinely guided. There is nothing inevitable about the present practice of shifting more of the profits of business to mangers and investors at the expense of the people who do the work. Similar rhetoric can be heard from the economists of the Victorian era when this economic "thinking" was last in fashion.

In the last 20 years, the average earnings of the top 5 percent of Americans grew by 54 percent. Earnings of the top 20 percent (including the top 5 percent) grew by 35 percent. The real earnings of the remaining 80 percent of Americans barely kept up with inflation.

We live in a time when people who work sustain one of the largest leisure classes in history. This leisure class demands double digit returns from businesses that historically earned single digits. This leisure class protects its lavish standard of living by slashing real earnings of people who do the world's work.

It is a conceit of the 18th Century economic mind that if you give money to people who know how to make money they will provide for the rest of us. "A rising tide lifts all boats," according to the trickle-down economists. The only problem with this theory is the tide doesn't distinguish between a yatch and the workboats. Which is just what the yacht owners want from their economists.

There is nothing new about this debate over income disparity. What is new is the way the issue has been successfully suppressed in Presidential campaigns since Ronald Reagan first ran in 1980. Ross Perot tried to raise it and was ridiculed. The UPS strike made the decline of the middle class standard of living a nationally discussed issue again.

That is worth celebrating on a holiday created to honor the people who do the world's work whether they are at a picnic or behind the cash register.

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

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor August 31, 1997 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page