Monday, September 1, 2014

Affirmative Action, Country Club Style

It’s Labor Day, so naturally I’m thinking about work and workers. I’ve always been a big fan of the labor movement of the early twentieth century. It was needed to ameliorate capitalist exploitation of labor. Today, the issue of the good and bad of unions is more complicated. Most union members are no longer in manufacturing companies; they are in public employee unions. Workplace safety is now covered by federal law. It’s not 1935 (the year the National Labor Relations Act was passed). Personally, I’d like to see us concentrate on raising the minimum wage—a lot. I think that would do more for lower income workers than anything.

But there is another labor issue of perhaps even greater importance: the opportunity to get a job at all. We are coming out of the Great Recession, but we have not yet regained full employment. Who gets the jobs that are there to be had is telling. It’s not high-school dropouts. It’s not people, young or old, with no skills. Today’s workers need education and job skills. And in many cases, they need something else: a helping hand onto the employment ladder. 

I was an industrious boy. I sold greeting cards and holiday wrapping paper. I sold pots and pans. I cut lawns. I had a paper route. I was a sack boy in a grocery store. I worked the graveyard shift at a printing plant. By the time I really got out into the world, I knew how to work. And I had confidence in my ability to do any job. I was a poster boy for American self-reliance.

Not really.

I was a country club brat. I was the son of a well-to-do doctor who bought a new car when the ashtray on his old one filled up. After my paper route, I played golf at the club and ate chicken sandwiches and told the white-jacketed waiter to put it on my father’s tab. I didn’t need to work, I just wanted to. I liked having my own money. I liked the independence. And getting a job was a piece of cake. Here’s why:

I did sell holiday cards door to door, but most were bought by family and friends of family. Ditto with the yards I cut. The lawn mower was Dad’s. I got the paper route myself, but I couldn’t have handled it if Dad hadn’t bought me a moped to deliver the papers. The grocery I worked for was the one where my mother shopped. The printing company where I loaded pallets was owned by a friend of hers on our block who had a mad crush on her.

A way of looking at my early work experience is that I was an apprentice in the family business, or on the family estate. The owners weren’t all Claytons, but they were friends of Claytons. Dad delivered their wives’ babies. Favors were passed back and forth as naturally as greetings at the country club.

Now, think about what a different situation an industrious lad like me growing up on the south side of Chicago has. It’s unlikely that his family’s friends are the owners of businesses that can employ him (unless you count drug businesses). It’s unlikely that his family can buy his equipment for his jobs and support him so that he gets to save all he earns for college. So he needs help from some other part of his life. That’s where affirmative action comes in. Programs that look for talented, ambitious kids with maybe a few rough edges and help them onto the education and employment ladder.

Affirmative Action seems to have fallen out of favor lately, not just in the Supreme Court but in the hearts and minds of many, especially young people, many of whom have benefited from the same kind of privileged affirmative action that aided me. I think we need to resist mythologizing our success as something we earned for ourselves. We’ve all had help. Everyone needs help. There’s no shame in that. The only shame is in denying it to those for whom it is not their birthright.

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