Fans of the original Star Trek may recall an episode called “The Cloud Minders,” which was based on an original story by David Gerrold. It’s about a planet where there is a literal upper class that lives in a city in the sky called Stratos. There, they enjoy arts, leisure, and meditation, while on the planet below, the lower-class people labor in grubby, toxic mines to support the pleasures of the elites.
The fact that our own society resembles this fictitious one has become very clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. The wealthy and even the middle-class, who hunker down in pleasant homes and fret about their losses in the stock market, are dependent upon truck drivers, store clerks, shelf stockers, warehouse workers, and trash collectors to keep society functioning smoothly.
Most economic conservatives rail against the idea of an increase in the federal minimum wage, saying we ought to leave such issues up to the “free market” to decide. They supported the generous tax cuts the Trump administration granted the wealthy in 2017.
Yet when the pandemic arrived, the whole idea of the free market was turned topsy-turvy.
While there was general concern voiced – deservedly – for the economic future of farmers, ranchers, and the owners of small businesses, there didn’t seem to be much hue and cry about, say, the people who have the unenviable job of chopping up animal carcasses in order to put pork chops and chicken nuggets on Americans’ tables.
Until the packers began getting sick, and processing plants started shutting down.
At press time, some 5,000 meat-packers had been found to be infected with COVID-19, many from being forced to work in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Twenty workers – obviously not the nursing-home residents that are the stereotype of these fatalities – died of the virus.
President Trump issued an executive order saying that meat-packing plants had to remain open, because the idea of the United States being short of meat was so unnerving. But the unions resisted, saying workers were not being provided enough protection.
Even before the pandemic, the meat-processing industry was known for being exceedingly dangerous. “There are many serious safety and health hazards in the meat packing industry,” says a statement on the OSHA website. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May of last year, the average wage of a meatpacker was just over $14 an hour for a total annual wage of $29,600.
According to the AFL-CIO, the top executives at S&P 500 corporations were making an average of $14.5 million a year in 2018, while the average worker made under $40,000. Who can reasonably argue that these CEOs are more than 362 times as brilliant and hard-working as their employees?
Our society desperately needs meatpackers, lettuce-pickers, maids, and others who are referred to as “non-skilled” laborers to keep us comfortably in our privileged towers of luxurious solitude. We balk at paying them anything approaching what they’re worth.
Yet when times are rough and these workers may be in short supply, we suddenly realize how much we need them. By gosh, get those meat-processers back into that plant or we’ll have to do without hamburgers and filet mignon! And make sure our fast-food places are staffed and someone is being paid to clean those subways in New York City and our grocery-store shelves are constantly filled!
How much longer will the elites in our nation be able to dwell in Stratos, paying exceedingly little income tax while enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor? In the Star Trek episode, Captain Kirk turned things around very rapidly.
Ah, if only we had someone here on the planet Earth who could fix things as easily.