Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Language Defines Meaning: The Labor Question

Reposted from Henry James Vasquez: Experimental Word Science

I'd like to break from my normal style and dig deep into a discussion about words and meaning. I believe the topic to be, however timeless and theoretical, relevant to our discussions of workers' rights and social justice. I hope you enjoy it.

I am currently taking a labor history course with my fellow editor Brendan McPhillips taught by professor Dan Graff. The class focuses on the history of labor in the United States since the New Deal. We often discuss "The Labor Question," which explores the employment relationship in different contexts. Yesterday, the question was posed by a classmate of mine: "Is the relationship between labor and management naturally adversarial?"

Given my obsession with words, I thought that it might be interesting to dig deeper into our understanding of the words labor and employee and how they might affect our answers.

To start, here are some of the most common definitions of labor in the noun form from Merriam-Webster:
  1. expenditure of physical or mental effort especially when difficult or compulsory
  2. the physical activities involved in giving birth
  3. an economic group comprising those who do manual labor or work for wages
These are all very familiar uses of the word, but which came first?

An aside–There are a number of ways to find etymologies. Recently, I've been addicted to the website http://podictionary.com for my daily dose of language entertainment. It tends to make etymology fun and not too serious. If you share this interest, I highly recommend frequent visits. For a more serious experience, I recommend this site instead.

The use of the word labor in English is believed to originate around 1300 CE. This original use meant "physical exertion of the body" (definition #1). Much later, labor began to also be associated with child-birthing (definition #2). It wasn't until modern economics that we saw labor being classified as one of the key elements of economic activity (definition #3). The following shows the different uses of "labor" with their approximate original years.

#1: To mean "physical work"1300 CE
#2: To mean "childbirth"1595 CE
#3: To mean "working class"1839 CE

The evolution of these uses affects the way in which we define the word. When we talk about the employment relationship, the meanings of the words labor and employee are critically important. Where some might speak of workers or laborers with a proud sense of accomplishment and dignity (definition #1), others might use it in a more theoretical manner (definition #3) to convey a specific power dynamic.

If you don't believe language is all that important, consider how language affects our understanding through the word employee.

The meaning of the word employee is necessarily built in relation to the words employer, employ, and employment. Unlike labor or work, which can exist in a vacuum (the lone farmer working his crops; the laborer marched in the street), employee is a term that necessitates the existence of an employer who employs the person in a relationship we call employment.

The word employ is a mono-directional verb suggesting the employer (giving agent) acts upon (employs) the employee (receiving agent). The word employee is naturally subservient. The term employment captures the entire relationship, holding with it the necessary acting agents and directionality of the relationship within its meaning. Colloquially, When we say someone "gave" another person a job, there is a clear directionality in the words themselves that implies that the employee is the key beneficiary and the employer was doing them a favor.

To bring our discussion back to tangibles, we must discuss how terminology is applied to our understanding of economics. The "employee" family of terms lend themselves to an understanding of economics that groups employers and employees together into a necessarily imbalanced but bonded unit, or "business." The independent agents that interact with the business are the outsiders who purchase goods or services from the business.

If we were to address the labor question in this language context, we might say that the employee and employer don't have an adversarial relationship because they belong to the same business (whose adversaries are other economic agents) and the employee is inherently indebted to the employer for giving (employing) them with a job. Not surprisingly, you'll often hear individuals with rosy, pro-management perspectives using language in this way.

An alternative way to understand the relationship can be extracted by the use of different terms, such as "laborer" or "worker." Wikipedia has the following definition for wage labor, which I find endlessly fascinating:
Wage Labor: the socioeconomic relationship between a worker and an employer in which the worker sells their labor under a contract (employment), and the employer buys it, often in a labor market.
In this definition, the laborer is an agent of equal importance to the manager/capitalist (employer). The laborer isn't some subservient part of a singular unit called a "business," but actually just another actor in the process of economic activity. The laborer "sells their labor" to an employer. The employer is a customer of labor. No one "gives" another person a job. There is a negotiated economic exchange.

When we see the labor question under these terms, the relationship becomes markedly different. We are also able to understand how the relationship is naturally adversarial. The two agents involved are making an economic exchange. Like hagglers and vendors, each want to get the better side of the deal. As the labor theory of value states–the capitalist extracts surplus wealth (see exploits) from the laborer in order to realize a profit. I don't intend to use this example to explain broadly how value is determined, but to explain how the capitalist-worker relationship looks on an individual basis.

This means that the laborer receives a lower price for the labor they "sell" than the capitalist charges to the next economic agent they exchange goods/services with. So long as there is an abundance (larger supply than demand) of labor, profits will continue to be realized by the capitalists. For the full story, it is worth mentioning the hidden value of opportunity cost, which has been used to justify this dynamic.

I hope that this little bit of experimental word science has elucidated the deeper meaning behind these terms. As a normative goal, I would like to encourage you to use the word worker or laborer in place of employee, especially when discussing the labor question in its many forms. The word labor is so incredibly versatile and historically rich. In fact, here are a few places where 'labor' is embedded in other familiar words you might not think of: 
  • laboratory
  • elaborate
  • belabor
  • collaborate
Perhaps, like myself, you never realized words like "elaborate" and "collaborate" were related to the word labor. See, isn't language fun?


Brian said...

Henry, this is absolutely brilliant! I'm very impressed.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I never thought about how employee is such a charged word.

ShamRockNRoll said...

Good post, Henry. When you brought this up in class yesterday I think you definitely stumped a couple of the pro-management commenters.

This elaborates on the point I was trying to make about the necessarily adversarial relationship between worker and employer much like the legal and even governmental structure of our nation.

Like Prof. Graff brought up yesterday, management has succeeded at framing unions as an "outsider"--a third party that only serves to complicate the relationship between employer and employee.

But as a former union worker I reject this false construction of the concept of unionism. My union was not an outside organization causing me problems in my relationship with my employer. I was the union. A union is a group of workers who come together to combine their resources to produce an effective negotiating force against their necessarily adversarial employer--who we should keep in mind, is not a lone individual or manager in most cases. Most unions represent workers bargaining against a corporation--an organization created within the legal framework of a state to organize a group of people forming a business. This organization has tremendous power, and when one considers the power most corporations have, it is absurd to assume that a lone worker will be able to effectively negotiate a fair exchange for his or her labor.

Unions provide the legal framework for workers to have an effective voice in the quality of their workplace and the value of their labor. When Rob told us about his uncle's view that as a manager he would be failing if a union developed because that meant the company wasn't taking care of its workers, he was partially right. He was right in the sense that companies would view this as a failure of management, but not because the union was the product of a disgruntled workforce. The upper management of a business would see this as a failure solely because it would result in the corporation being forced to meet a tougher opponent at the bargaining table, resulting in the corporation extracting less surplus from the labor it is purchasing. Individual managers, like Rob's uncle, particularly in smaller companies, surely have respect for their employees and want to treat them well (most of the time). But this misses the bigger picture of what is taking place. Unions aren't necessarily formed out of desperation because of bad relations with mid-level or upper-management. Unions are an exercise of a group of workers asserting their dignity and value in the workplace; unions are an organic development of a group of people conscious of their equal status to the organization with whom they must make some of the most important negotiations of their lives--the value of their time and labor, the security of the job that puts food on their families table, and the safety of the place they will spend 40+ hours of every week.

Matt said...

Glad to see that Notre Dame education going to good use

Thomas Wachtel said...

Loved this. I was especially interested by the Wikipedia definition -- I had never thought of it that way. Very thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the relationship is naturally adversarial in some sense, but it is also mutually beneficial (in a free society). See: wikipedia definition Henry quoted. It's mutually benficial or else the employer would refuse to buy the labor or the potential employee would refuse to sell his labor. When you buy an apple, it's mutually beneficial: you get an apple and the seller gets your money. It's adversarial in some sense, but it's also win-win. This is essense of trade/commerce.

I'd be careful with all this talk about the labor theory of value and extracting surplus, etc. Yes, history is helpful and so is linguistics, but this is largely an economic question. I think economics is a lot more helpful in answering these questions than either history or linguistics. The top economists, from progressives like Krugman to more pro-market types like Mankiw and Feldstein all (or almost all, there may be some exception I don't know about) use the marginal theory of value. Not the labor theory of value. So, to use labor theory of value language is not so unlike using Lamarckian or young-earth creationist language. Yeah, interesting I suppose, but basically obsolete and discredited.

Lastly, there's a missing piece. And I find it interesting that social democrat types like yourselves would forge tthis piece: society or community. The union can try to stick it to management and get higher wages, but that will often mean higher prices for society as a whole. I'm not pro-labor and I'm not pro-management. I'm pro-consumer. There may be some instance of the union doing more economic good than economic harm, but I think those cases are rare. Also, keep in mind that in many cases the union is helping the middle class worker (makign, say, $30 or 40 an hour) at the expense of the poor unemployed person or low-wage worker.


ShamRockNRoll said...

The assumption that higher wages always necessitate higher prices for society as a whole is false. There is a lot of literature on this. From my personal experience, I worked in a union shop with much higher wages than some of our competitors who charged similar prices on goods. Those profits were clearly distributed in different ways at each company, yet the consumers had basically the same options before them.

Anonymous said...

And that's why I used the word "often" rather than "always."

Anonymous said...

Also, if you have any literature that says that unionization usually does not lead to higher prices, I'd be happy to read it. I'm not doctrinaire on economic issues.

My e-mail address is gregorycbarr@gmail.com

ShamRockNRoll said...

Given that we've had this exact same debate before, I think I'll put that on my to-do list right after writing another 4 papers, passing finals, etc.

ShamRockNRoll said...

Though, I should point out that this debate we just started (again) isn't the purpose of this post... Henry is writing about the relationship between employer and worker, and how language affects that.

Anonymous said...

That's fine. Please do put on your to do list.

Also, language isn't just about individual words. It's about combinations of words into sentences and paragraphs and blog posts, and I think what Henry is saying about labor shows a confusion on his part about labor economics.

Also, for Lefty's readers in general: I recommend Milton Friedman's book "Capitalism and Freedom", especially the small part about labor unions. Bill can back me up that this is a good book.


Bill said...

Yes, in fact I regret selling that book back to the bookstore for all of five dollars. I was a dumb freshman.

Bill said...

I'd also like to caution against the dismissal of the relevance of linguistics to this conversation. Economics, like all disciplines, has its own set of jargon, which is great in that it doesn't require every economist to reinvent the wheel when talking about economic theory. But the downside is that word choices and the history behind the words that people use carry with them implicit biases. All words are loaded, and when we try to pass off the words we commonly use as the only acceptable framework for discussion we are limiting the scope of an entire discipline to accepting the biases that those words and phrases imply.

It's definitely a useful exercise to reexamine the words that we do use, what they actually mean, and why we accept their use as the norm over any of the other applicable synonyms or euphemisms. It can help open up a restrictive discipline to more discussion from different points of view, which can contribute to a more diverse literature on the subject.

Are you familiar at all with social constructivism?

Anonymous said...

Henry, you should read Richard Rorty--he uses quite a bit of linguistic/historicism in his political philosophy; I bet you'd find him interesting (particularly, "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for commenting, Bill.

I didn't mean to diss linguistics. And I do think that sometimes economists use a little too much jargon. I like simplicity and "straight talk" when possible. It's fine to question the word choices of economists. But I'd also question some of the left's word choices, such as "exploit", "extract surplus", and even "worker"/"laborer". I think managing a team of workers is itself work. Therefore, why not call a manager a worker?

I've heard of people talking about "social constructs", and I associate it with social science, etc. I've encountered similar talk in history class and maybe anthropology as well. But I can't say I'm very well versed in that theory. Are you a fan?

Bill said...

It has its uses. Constructivism isn't necessarily something I subscribe to, but I acknowledge its importance in forcing the social sciences to do some much-needed self-reflection. As a methodology, I like it; as a theory it has limited usefulness since it undercuts the ability of social sciences to call themselves "sciences". Not sure if I'm explaining that very well.

Anonymous said...

I think I know what you mean. Thanks.

Rabi Abonour said...

Great post, man. I find the language/meaning dichotomy extremely fascinating, particularly in political discourse.