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Say thanks on Labor Day

SCV Voices

Posted: August 29, 2008 10:00 p.m.
Updated: October 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Labor Day is more than 110 years old, yet it’s especially relevant today.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Web page says it best: “The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy.

“It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

Like many things, “labor” has become a political word. Whether you are a welder whose hands crafted the steel in downtown skyscrapers, or a firefighter, a teacher, or an engineer, a doctor, manager or business owner, the American attitude toward the worth of our workers affects you.

I offer some random thoughts for deep discussion over your holiday hamburgers.

The need  earn respect
I read recently that a mark of a good manager is a willingness to “do what it takes” to get things done. Creativity, flexibility, and the magic words “no problem” go far.

Workers shouldn’t feel free to ignore work requests they judge unimportant. Trust that the bosses know more about the importance of the task they need done. Of course, a good boss, who is just another worker, also has to be a good communicator and a good listener.

A fun social experiment for anyone who works in an office is the “coffee test.” Most managers I know don’t care if they end up making the coffee, but some entry-level employees are the first to protest that it’s not their job, and they sit around waiting for the coffee to be made by someone else.

I predict those willing to wash out the occasional coffee pot will advance faster in the company.

Workers deserve respect
On the flip side is a pervasive thought that workers at all levels are simply a cost to be managed. Some companies consciously seek out whoever will take the least amount per hour for the specified work — skills and efficiency are not relevant.

After multiple years in a row of benefit cuts, poor management, and nonexistent raises, workplaces get staffed with whoever can’t get a better gig elsewhere.

Skills do matter. In everything from government workers to dozer drivers, recollect how you feel when you find the gem who speaks in complete sentences and makes you confident the job will get done.

People building our freeway bridges, driving loaded semi trucks, teaching our children, servicing our phone and Internet, fixing us up in hospitals, or working on our cars should not be selected based on who is the cheapest — or we will all pay in the end.

Things that need fixing
Some 6.4 million fewer workers had employer-provided health insurance in 2006 than in 2000, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

We have witnessed workers like those at GM, who worked their whole lives for the promise of a pension, be told, “Oops, sorry, we changed our minds.”

And though dueling statistics abound, the buying power of the average worker’s take-home pay has dropped. Income increases have largely been constrained to the top 1 percent of wage earners, leaving the majority failing behind increases in the cost of living.

There are lots of causes, and lots of solutions needed. “The construction industry is one of the industries most affected by too many people chasing too few jobs. Immigration, including illegal immigration, adds to the problems that workers face.

“Especially in the residential construction industry we have seen wages drop by 70 percent in the last 25 years” said Richard Slawson of the Los Angeles/Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.

We need tax breaks for companies who keep work in the United States, and penalties for those that don’t. Several local business owners I know have painfully talked about having to close U.S. offices because they can’t compete with companies using foreign labor.

Everyone from computer engineers to factory workers is being told the global economy is good for us.

However, saving $10 off an item at Best Buy isn’t really a good trade off for losing your job.

We need to stop going for the short-term cheap in both goods and labor.

Low bidders may end up costing more in cost overruns, change orders, and oversight costs.

Use licensed contractors and legal workers. Don’t reward people who provide shoddy service. Seek out those with good reputations. Communicate what is needed to workers, expect them to do what is needed, and show them respect.

If we look for quality, good service, and great results, in all likelihood these things will come from happy, well-paid workers. That helps us, our neighbors and the economy as a whole.

This Labor Day, be grateful to those who were a voice for the wages and benefits you enjoy. Workers like you and me help build our country and keep it safe, healthy and vital day in and day out. Labor Day is our time to say thanks.

Maria Gutzeit is a business owner and Santa Clarita resident. She also serves as vice president of the Newhall County Water District. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.


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