April 14, 2011 —
You may not be familiar with the Mulla Nasrudin, but he’s a fascinating fellow to get to know. Apparently a real person at one time, he now lives on as a character in folklore, appearing under various names and guises from Bulgaria to Afghanistan and beyond. (Look in Wikipedia under “Nasreddin” to learn more.)
Many Nasrudin stories are used by the Muslim mystics known as the Sufis as teaching tools, and Sufi author Idries Shah has produced a wonderful series of books cataloguing his exploits. In these stories, Nasrudin is sometimes the wisest man in the room, sometimes the most foolish, and sometimes it’s hard to tell. Here’s one:
So Nasrudin had a donkey, with which he made a living hauling goods. But he also had to make ends meet, and he realized that if he could cut down on his operating costs, he could have more profit. So he started cutting back on his donkey’s feed—not all at once, of course, but bit by bit, feeding him a little less each day. When after a few weeks the donkey finally keeled over and died, the Mulla was distraught indeed. “Drat my luck!” he fumed. “If only he had lived a bit longer! I almost had him trained to live on nothing at all.”
Traditionally, that’s where that story ends—but I think there’s more to it. Here’s my addition:
So then the Mulla, chastened by his experience, started over. He bought three donkeys, and this time remembered to feed them all properly. The donkeys were healthy and strong, and each could do lots of work. So, when the economy got a little tight again, he sold one of them off, and split the work of three between the remaining two. This worked out even better, and the Mulla prospered while the donkeys strained.
(You do see where this is going, don’t you?)
In fact, he found that he could add still more to each donkey’s workload. They worked a little slower, perhaps, but usually all they needed was a bit more encouragement—either of the carrot or the stick variety. But then the younger one stepped into a hole and broke its leg, so the elder one was pressed into double duty—until its heart gave out, that is. “These unreliable donkeys!” exclaimed the Mulla. “I am done with them!” And off he stalked to talk to the camel merchant.
The moral of this story, of course, is obvious: “Donkeys don’t have unions.”
Well, okay, maybe that’s not so obvious. But Nasrudin’s problem is, I think, closely linked to certain current trends, including the anti-union offensive being waged most visibly at the moment in Ohio and Wisconsin, and the problems being encountered by state governments across the country, typified by the budget cuts being proposed by Pennsylvania’s new Governor Tom Corbett.
Many working people today find themselves in plights similar to Nasrudin’s donkeys—dealing with reduced resources, increased workloads, or both, as managers and executives struggle to cope with the demands of our heavily financialized economic system. In that system, investors require ever-increasing profits to be extracted from the efforts of fewer workers through gains in productivity and reductions in overhead expenses. As more workers lose their jobs and unemployment stays high, the remaining workers come under increased pressure to deal with deteriorating working conditions as best they can, rather than take the chance of seeking other employment.
Without a strong labor movement, and without effective government regulation and oversight of the workplace, these trends can only accelerate. We’ve seen the results before, time and time again—as recently as last year’s coal mine disasters, and a century ago in the recently commemorated Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.
History shows us very good reasons why the union movement came into being. It’s not hard to see the reasons why it has come under such concerted attack now. And there are very compelling reasons to make sure that the gains of the last hundred years are not dismantled.