Whatever happened to labor?
Not Labor with a capital L, as in organized labor unions. I mean labor as in skilled workers solving interesting problems. I mean craftspeople who use their hands, their backs and their heads to do important work.
Labor was a key part of the manufacturing revolution. Industrialists needed smart, dedicated, trained laborers to solve interesting problems. Putting things together took more than pressing a few buttons, it took initiative and skill and care. Labor improvised.
It took thirteen years to build the Brooklyn Bridge and more than twenty-five laborers died during its construction. There was not a systematic manual to follow. The people who built it largely figured it out as they went.
The Singer sewing machine, one of the most complex devices of its century, had each piece fitted by hand by skilled laborers.
Sometime after this, once Henry Ford ironed out that whole assembly line thing, things changed. Factories got far more complex and there was less room for improvisation as things scaled.
The boss said, "do what I say. Exactly what I say."
Amazingly, labor said something similar. They said to the boss, "tell us exactly what to do." In many cases, work rules were instituted, flexibility went away and labor insisted on doing exactly what they had agreed to do, no more, no less. At the time, this probably felt like power. Now we know what a mistake it was.
In a world where labor does exactly what it's told to do, it will be devalued. Obedience is easily replaced, and thus one worker is as good as another. And devalued labor will be replaced by machines or cheaper alternatives. We say we want insightful and brilliant teachers, but then we insist they do their labor precisely according to a manual invented by a committee…
Companies that race to the bottom in terms of the skill or cost of their labor end up with nothing but low margins. The few companies that are able to race to the top, that can challenge workers to bring their whole selves–their human selves–to work, on the other hand, can earn stability and growth and margins. Improvisation still matters if you set out to solve interesting problems.
The future of labor isn't in less education, less OSHA and more power to the boss. The future of labor belongs to enlightened, passionate people on both sides of the plant, people who want to do work that matters.
That's what Labor Day is about, not the end of a month on the beach.