[VIEWPOINT]Labor’s economic satisfactionThe first Monday of September is the U.S. Labor Day. Many countries, including South Korea, observe the holiday on May 1, but the United States observes its unique holiday. We can grasp from this that labor in the United States is thought of very differently from the socialist idea of labor, and that the Americans have constructed their own unique values surrounding it. On the American Labor Day, not only industrial laborers but all people enjoy a day of rest.
One characteristic of U.S. party politics is that there is no major party representing socialism or laborers. Of course nominally there are tens of political groups like the U.S. Socialist Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Labor Party and even the U.S. Communist Party. But in the pantheon of political parties, these are extremely small groups, and although some of them may put forward presidential candidates, nobody aside from their members votes for them. Because U.S. politics is dominated by the competition between the two major parties, even when a third party candidate steps up and gets the attention of the public, they usually fail to get a single electoral college vote. Their candidacy has no other meaning than to let people know of their existence.
Socialists like Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky and August Bebel once predicted that the proletarian revolution would start in the United States. That prediction was off the mark, but it was not totally without basis. The United States led the second-stage industrialization of the world, and so the major entrepreneurs at the end of the 19th century were Americans like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. The United States was also the country with the biggest factories and the largest laboring population. Naturally, at the beginning of the 20th century, terrible labor-management disputes were also breaking out in the United States.
But socialism failed as a popular ideology, because the country prospered financially after World War I, new welfare programs were expanded at the peak of the New Deal and a wind of change blew in management to make labor conditions better. The number of labor union members has remained at less than 20 percent of total laborers in the past half-century. Socialists criticized this change, saying that American laborers were becoming bourgeoisie. In fact, Trotsky briefly visited the United States in 1917 and admitted that American laborers were better off than the middle class of Paris.
The United States is a country with a constant inflow of immigrants, so the “3-D jobs,” the dirty, dangerous and difficult ones, mostly go to new immigrants. Immigrants also often work at small businesses owned by family members and work for less than the pay of white laborers. White laborers often complain that immigrant labor depresses wage standards, but it is a survival strategy of minority races that they work for lower wages than whites. This is why Korean-American laborers generally do not like labor unions. Ultimately, American laborers do not feel that labor unions are there to represent the rights and interests of all laborers.
U.S. socialists tried hard to join hands with labor unions at one time. But the union slogan is, “A union for bread and butter issues,” and made it clear that they had no interest in turning their focus from the rights and interests of real laborers by chanting political slogans. In order to attain their political goals, labor unions chose the strategy of supporting one of the two major parties that would represent their interests.
Because of these factors, a labor or socialist party could not flourish in the United States. Although the United States did not construct its social system based on income distribution, its flexible welfare policy and business management have made it one of the most evenly distributive countries of the world. Looking at the United States in a realistic human way and not through cold statistics like the Gini coefficient, we can see that the degree of economic satisfaction among people is evenly spread and that most laborers take pride in being middle class themselves. They form the backbone of patriotism. Highly educated people of our country also may work as laborers if they emigrate to the United States. The reason why people try to emigrate anyway lies in the way the country provides economic satisfaction to everybody.
* The writer is a professor of American history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Hyeong-in