I was reading through this heart-breaking piece in the Washington Post about workers at the Nissan plant in Smyrna, who, since they're mostly temp workers, don't have the same rights and benefits as real Nissan employees. Much like the much-lauded Amazon jobs—it's hard work for shitty pay and whether we're actually benefiting from having a bunch of employed people who never get to see their families, who end up broken by the experience, and who don't have disposable income remains to be seen.
But one of the curious things I noticed when reading through the article is how often the metaphor of family came up.
First is this insight from Susan Gulley:
Susan Gulley, a former Nissan temp herself who left to start an arts venue and cafe in the two-block-long historic downtown — which gets help from Nissan too — likens the strategy to a family that's cut back on big expenses in favor of smaller, feel-good indulgences.
"Sometimes when you're limited in your budget because of recent changes, you do more family oriented things," she says. "You go on picnics, you spend less money but you spend more quality time together. It's not that expensive to get involved, and they know a little bit of help could go a long way."
And then later on, State Rep. Mike Sparks says:
"If you've got somebody and they're not part of the family, part of the team, how do you get things equally yoked?" Sparks asks, after pulling out a book on Kaizen, which Nissan drilled into employees while he worked there. "If you've got two oxen pulling in one direction, you know what's gonna happen, there's a old term my dad used to use, it's called cattywompus. Cattywompus is like crooked, which will adversely affect quality."
And the thing is that I think both Gully and Sparks have really good insights into what's going on at the Nissan plant and what's going wrong for workers there. But they've making a really fundamental mistake — Nissan isn't a family. It's immoral for a person to do what Nissan (and Amazon and Walmart and on and on and on) is doing to its workers. But capitalism isn't moral. It's not immoral, but it's amoral. It operated outside of moral considerations.
If Nissan were a family, where some family members ended up broken and sprained and separated from friends and family and, if they did anything to upset Daddy Nissan, they ended up kicked out of the house — we'd have DCS going over the Nissan family with a fine tooth comb. The Tennessean would be writing outraged stories about the horrors at the Nissan family home. Families are expected to operate for the benefit of family members and to not actively harm and discard members. We expect families to operate under some moral system.
But a company's job is not to make things nice for its employees. It's to maximize profits for shareholders. The nice things that tend to happen for employees in our industrialized history happen because it maximizes profits. Our very own Baxter brothers, those great railroad executives, supported education, even at Fisk, not because they'd somehow become less racist since their days in the Confederacy, but because they knew educated workers — from the engineers on down to the porters — made for better-run railroads which would make them money. Ford didn't price the Model T or set workers' wages where he did because he was kind. He did it because he wanted his employees to spend their money on his cars so that he could make money.
Nissan hires temporary workers and then grinds them into pulps before discarding them for other temporary workers because that's how they maximize profit. We have a lot of people in this state who are smart but who don't have college educations. So, a company like Nissan benefits from being here. They get our smart, uneducated bodies to work until they break and then someone else can fill the spot. Our greatest natural resource is smart people with very limited opportunities (yet another reason I don't trust the Governor's efforts to make the first two years of community college free instead of the first two years of all higher ed. An associate's degree doesn't provide you with that much more opportunity than a high school diploma.).
And the trap we're in is that, as long as our greatest resource — the thing car manufacturers and Amazon and Walmart and so on and so on all need — are smart people with limited resources, no matter how much someone like Rep. Sparks can recognize that workers are suffering, there's no reason for the state to alleviate that suffering.
And if it's not in corporations' or the state's interest to alleviate the suffering of Tennesseans, but Tennesseans won't band together to demand better conditions, we're stuck.