Labor lessons

Working Americans are not alone, though it may seem that way sometimes. In fact, they join a mass of about 2.5 billion people worldwide who labor for a living. In Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy, author Michael D. Yates focuses on workers here and abroad to show how a lack of equality on the job ultimately affects humanity under a social form of organization called capitalism.

No armchair radical, Yates writes in plain language that readers will enjoy. He has honed his analysis as an author, editor and professor of economics and labor relations at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and as a teacher of autoworkers and prisoners.

Crucially, Yates clarifies the official view of work. For instance, his book is a resource for working people to understand better the false claims about America’s “new economy” during the 1990s. Yates shows how and why the wealth created in that decade did not flow downward to them but upward to a rich few. Readers can refer to his book to refute claims about a “populist” stock market that enriches Main Street.

Read and discover how so-called “women’s work” at home—from the rearing of kids to the care of elders—goes uncounted in the official measure of a nation’s productivity. Yates details the process by which women who work for a wage usually suffer a double or, if they are nonwhite, triple oppression. Learn why women working for wages in U.S. offices and Indonesia’s sweatshops have much in common. I liked Yates’ new and eye-opening details on women’s entry into paid work during the 20th century worldwide.

Regular readers likewise can grasp Yates’ many concrete examples of lousy work with low pay and benefits. He makes clear how unemployment and underemployment within and between nations depresses wages to boost profits. American workers rarely hear, read or see such analysis of this topic in mass media or in schools.

Yates’ chapters on mainstream or neoclassical vs. radical economic theory cut through much confusion about both. He studied and taught the former for years. Then the anti-Vietnam War and civil-rights movements made Yates question his teachings. Why? “The neoclassical theory sets up a completely abstract model of capitalism, devoid of any connection to reality, and then proceeds to trace out the logic of this abstract model and make predictions about the real world,” he writes.

Like Karl Marx 150 years ago as capitalism emerged from feudalism in England, Yates sees working people, those who must sell themselves by the hour to a boss to earn cash to get by, as the key to expanding human freedom. This concept is at the heart of Yates’ radicalism.

On that note, his book is a radical primer on the national and global economy that uses real working people’s experiences as its basic text. Accordingly, many lessons for a better future are to be found in his study of workers’ past triumphs and tragedies.

One recent victory, he notes, is the burgeoning global justice movement at many American colleges. Students against sweatshops, together with some American unions and foreign workers, are improving international equality, Yates writes. In unity, they are heeding his words that, “We must ‘name the system’—capitalism—if we want to build a better world.” Yates’ book is a resource for people struggling to create more equality at home and abroad. Read it and get a move on.