Factory jobs and the quality of life

Sept. 8, 2011
Politicians recently have been touting the idea of boosting U. S. employment with manufacturing jobs. Look below the newspaper headlines about the economy falling apart, and you’ll likely find stories about local politicians visiting factories

Politicians recently have been touting the idea of boosting U. S. employment with manufacturing jobs. Look below the newspaper headlines about the economy falling apart, and you’ll likely find stories about local politicians visiting factories, usually those operating in what are considered “green” industries.

This is a big switch. Most of those who comment on the labor market have gone out of their way to make derisive and condescending remarks about factory jobs, at least in the U. S. Typical are those by former hedge-fund manager Andy Kessler in a book he wrote called Running Money. Observing workers on the line during a tour of the Nummi assembly factory once operated by Toyota and GM in Fremont, Calif., he said, “The guide was especially cheery describing what appeared to be the dreariest jobs I have ever seen. One guy tightening nuts, another attaching a wire, another tightening a harness — each of them dripping sweat. The lighting was bad, the factory noisy, and the air had a gritty, metal-flake feel to it, yet almost every worker we passed looked up and smiled. But it was one of those caged tiger smiles, sort of an I-hate-this-job-and-have-to-put-up-withgawking- tourists-look. ... I looked in the workers’ eyes, and no one was really happy. They weren’t part of the future, they were stuck in the past, in a cage.”

All I can say about this tirade is that apparently Mr. Kessler has never walked through a cubicle farm the likes of which characterize the banking and investment industry from which he hails. Had he done so, he likely would have found the same don’t-wanna-be-here ambiance he claims to have discovered at Nummi. And conditions at Nummi weren’t onerous enough to prevent many of its 5,400 workers from protesting at the Japanese embassy in Washington, D. C. when Toyota eventually shut down that plant.

Actually, the antimanufacturing rant of Mr. Kessler is part of a long-standing trend. It has been fashionable to claim that factories and the industrial revolution have led to a lower quality of life. The picture painted by detractors is that factories primarily gave us tenements, poverty, and pollution from smokebelching mills.

But economists point out this just isn’t true. Mechanization of production reduced poverty and raised incomes across all classes of people. The rise was steepest for unskilled workers. As economists put it, real wages rose faster than real output throughout the nineteenth century. That means workers producing goods were increasingly able to afford them.

Those who worked in factories and mills during the 1800s labored in dangerous and dirty conditions that modern workers would never tolerate, but it is also true that these conditions were better than alternatives, most typically those available on farms of the day. That’s why workers flocked to jobs in mills. Mill owners never had to send out press gangs to find hired help. In fact, the opposite was true. That is why mill jobs were denied to turn-of-the-century minorities such as the Irish and blacks.

The lack of better alternatives is a point that seems to be lost on those who like to dismiss factory work. The one question they can’t answer, though, is this: For the average Joe or Mary you find in a factory, what kind of other work have you got that’s better?

—Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.

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