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The Value of Labor

well, except MINE

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, May 15, 1996.

There is a point in management – labor relations where some very basic and uncomfortable questions must be asked. Much is made – with great reason – of the bloated compensations of the CEOs, and the negative impact such revelations have on the often struggling employees. It cannot be good, and while there is logic in tying their compensation to how the company stock has done under their particular watch, it also removes any commonality of purpose between stockholders, management and labor, which is destructive.

But at the other end, precisely how much is a check-out clerk at a grocery store worth? As you know, King Soopers and Safeway clerks are on strike, feeling their pension and other benefits are under threat. This raises a question. Is there an upper end to how much such jobs ought to pay, even when the company is doing well? These jobs are, almost by definition, dead-end. It is unlikely that what you learn after years of counting change and running a scanner across package codes qualifies you for management…or much else. It is a job a half-way mature high school student could do, perhaps with more energy than a fifty-year old experienced check out clerk. It is hard to glorify such work without sounding silly. Very silly.

And so it must be asked: could the people packaging your food eventually be earning, say, more than you? Should they? It is a rude but necessary question, the one communism never asked. What are certain jobs worth? Should the criteria be what unions can gouge out, or a percentage of company profit, or should it be a combination of factors, including common sense?

Surely, the same should be asked of CEO’s pulling in fifty-two million a year, but for them – at least – the proof is in the pudding: stock value. What is the gauge of labor value for people whose most exhausting intellectual task is to divine paper or plastic? And Ed, would you get a wet cleanup on aisle 5?