Ray, 9-2-2013

My Word: Irreplaceable quality of human labor

robert ray

By Robert J. Ray

As Central Floridians celebrate Labor Day today, it’s a time for shopping and super sales. A chance for outdoor barbecues. A day of r-e-e-e-a-l-l-y long lines at the attractions. But relatively few people will think about labor.

That’s not how Labor Day started. It began as a goodbye celebration to the sweatshop era. It reminded members of the lunch-bucket brigade of the pride they should take in their contribution to our developing nation. It heralded a new day of optimism for “the working man.” It symbolized greater fairness and equality. It was about progress and hope.

But that was more than 100 years ago. Today, robots and computers have made millions of workers redundant. Millions more have had their jobs sent overseas, where wages are low and there’s no labor movement to fight for those workers’ rights.

Such changes have economic impact. Outsourcing may ensure the availability of cheaper products on store shelves, but unemployment and underemployment increasingly jeopardize the ability of many to buy those cheaper products.

Somewhere in all this, we’re losing sight of the social and spiritual implications of labor. There’s dignity in labor. It provides a sense of purpose. As King Solomon put it: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.”

Unfortunately, in the United States today, we’re in a downward spiral. The more employers toss workers aside whenever profit margins dip, the more employees lose their sense of loyalty and obligation to their employers. The reverse is also true: When employee performance falls, so does the treatment employees receive.

Despite our corporate readiness to automate everything, quality human employees can never truly be replaced for some tasks. I don’t mind the fact that well-engineered robots assembled much of my car. But by the time I get to to the 20th option on an answering machine’s menu when making a simple inquiry call, I’m truly desperate for the sound of a friendly human voice. The wages saved may not justify the frustration created.

It would be wonderful if Labor Day caused employers, employees and would-be employees to rethink — and then do something about — a number of our prevailing-but-counter-productive assumptions and attitudes about labor.

Robert J. Ray, a risk-management consultant, is a member of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.