Ven. Sevan Ross : A Buddhist’s View of Wage Theft

Ven. Sevan Ross, on right, with Unitarian Universalist minister James Ford. Photo from Monkey Mind.

A Buddhist’s view of wage theft
Right Livelihood and paying people what’s right

As long as we regard each other not as humans but as the “other,” we will suffer profound abuses in the workplace.

By Ven. Sevan Ross / November 14, 2009

When I was a boy and asked my coal miner father one time too many for money, he got me a job as a “myrtle plugger.” I sat all day in a field of ground cover with a special tool and “plugged” one plant at a time from the ground into a “flat” — a large wooden box. Each plant took up a four-square-inch space. I saw immediately that I could fit between 50 and 60 plants into the box. Upon filling a flat I was to take it to the Yard Boss who was to “count” it and give me a fresh one to fill. I was to be paid five cents per flat. This was child labor, and it was in the early 1960s in Pennsylvania.

When I took up my first flat, the Yard Boss reached into the box and used his hand to squeeze my plants together to one side. They now filled 40 percent of the flat. He smiled, winked, grunted, and handed it back to me.

This was wage theft, and although I was only 10 years old, I knew it. I quit that “job” at the end of my first week. My father simply said, “Now you know what a union is for.”

I was too young to understand what my father meant, but I was developed enough to see that the yard boss did not see me as human in some important way. He regarded me as the “other” — as a tool like any other tool, to be used as needed for as long I held up to his purpose.

Many years later I heard a talk given during my priest training in which Yasutani Roshi, a well-known Japanese Zen Master, said these words: “The fundamental problem for all humanity is that you believe that you are there and I am here.” This sums up how Buddhism casts a critical eye on the behavior of people — especially in commercial enterprises.

As long as we regard each other not as humans but as the “other,” we will suffer profound abuses in the workplace. Employers will steal their workers’ wages, either overtly or covertly. And all the while they will deny both to themselves and others that this is the case. After all, they are only employees. I — or we — happen to be management, and as such are responsible for the survival and the thriving of the organization. Except that the workers are the organization and a theft against them is one against the group — and me too.

I’m sure that the Yard Boss was being stolen from in some way by his betters back in that myrtle field. He could not have invented the workplace abuse of a child all on his own. I’ll bet it went all the way to the top. After all, what happens at the top flows directly to the bottom in organizations. If “the other” is how we see individuals, we will guarantee they will see us this way also.

So from a Buddhist perspective it is not quite enough to say that we each are our brother’s keeper. We need to feel instead that we actually are our brother. And from this, fair treatment flows naturally. There is then what we Buddhists call Right Livelihood — mutually productive work, with everyone being treated fairly, everyone being treated Right.

[Ven. Sevan Ross was ordained in 1992 as a Zen Buddhist priest by Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, director of the Rochester Zen Center. Sevan has been training in Zen since 1976 and has served on the resident staff of the Rochester Zen Center for eight years where he served as both administrator of the Center and as Head of Zendo (head priest in charge of training under the Roshi).]

Source / Interfaith Worker Justice

Thanks to Danny Postel / The Rag Blog

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6 Responses to Ven. Sevan Ross : A Buddhist’s View of Wage Theft

  1. Well said. I worked in my father’s plant and soon noted that some employees were paid to keep an eye on those of us who wanted a union. They could not have done this if they saw us as sharing their common humanity.

    The ancient Greeks learned to think in terms of community, but the problem was they saw some parts of the community mainly as subjects of the elite. Aristotle thought the community should do nothing to impede the development of anyone, but he thought you only owed brotherhood to relatives.

    Jesus Christ taught that we should treat all as brothers, but it took the Christians a long time to grasp that.

    Those who came over here in the 17trh century did not understand this.
    What is worse, they adopted an economic system that said thag greed is good and that economic life must be dog-eat-dog competition.

    Is there any wonder we have no tools to discuss the common good and why 45 million Americans should go without good health care.

  2. Fed Up says:

    It is interesting that people cry buckets of tears over the expropriation, say, of someone lke Ayn Rand’s father’s personal property, but they do not even recognize the expropriation of the suplus of human labor time on an hourly basis for the wealth of those who did not do the work!

    This is just waaaaay too complicated for people to even discuss, dontcha know!

    And if you are a worker, you are considered stupid, uneducated, but I think its largely the other way around…how can you call yourself educated when you look down on the very goose that lays your golden egg.

    Albert Einstein, however, understood this all very well, and acted accordingly: He said “A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I hve recieved and am still receiving.”

    And it really burns me up that the right wing calls progressives “freeloaders” when historically, progressives have represented laboring classes, workers and farmers.

    If anyone is a freeloader, its those “educated” people who steal the product of our labor and use it to hurt us, either here, around the world or both.

  3. Sherman stopped working for a corrupt business and sold his labor to someone who valued him more. The employer replaced him with someone who choose to work under their conditions. Everyone got what they wanted and no one was forced to do something they didn’t want to do. Eventually a company would have emerged that treated its workers fairly, leaving the old corrupt business to die off or change its practices. This is called the free market. When left on its own, It creates the best outcomes for both workers and employers.

    It is not a fairy tale. Just ask the workers at Toyota and Honda plants in Kentucky and Tennessee if they want a union. The answer there, and at hundreds of thousands of other companies around the country, is a resounding no. This is a real example of the authors … Right Livelihood — mutually productive work, with everyone being treated fairly, everyone being treated Right.

    If it weren’t for the political pay back of Obama in 2009 (GM and Chrysler bailouts), the UAW would have finally been dealt the death blow that it deserves. The Detroit auto makers would have found a natural balance much like Toyota and Honda. As it is, billions of dollars each year will be spent keeping the UAW on life support in order to secure votes for democratic candidates in Ohio and Michigan. I wonder what the Buddhists say about corruption?

  4. Sorry .. didnt mean to write “Sherman: in the first sentence. Meant to write “the author”.

  5. Richard says:

    I’m sure that Fed up meant Ayn Rand’s fathers private property in his similie. I gave up private property many years ago, but I still have personal property that I use and care for, but it is not mine it belongs to all. I have enjoyed the things that I have possession of. I have land, cars, boats, and travel the world, things I never could have accumulated in the private property system. When I am aware of anyone who “needs” the things more than I do, I give them to them.
    DHS makes a good argument for the elimination of the surplus labor pool, i.e. the unemployed, one worker quit the job that did not serve him but was easily replaced by an other who was willing to work in the same conditions and at the same pay because it was better than nothing. This surplus labor pool is maintained by the capitalist and is key to maintaining capitalism itself, 100%employment would be the death of the wage slave system.

  6. Fed Up says:

    No, that is not what I meant.

    Property is real…property is buildings, fences, tractors, cars, factores, its REAL, you can just look around you and see it everywhere — that is property, and labor made and makes it, no one else.

    So why does the surplus (that which is more than is needed to keep labor and everyone else alive and healthy) not belong to labor and serve labor?

    I don’t know if we have answers to that question anymore or not, but it is still the best question in the world.

    Or, as Abe Lincoln said, “Labor creates all the wealth and should share thereof.” My grandpa often quoted Mr. Lincoln, but I think that labor creates all the wealth and should share it with no one and should only use it to help all the people.

    I’m sure that is a pipe dream, but it is still a good dream.

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