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The Bourgeois Deal Has Brought Us A Lot More than Pie in the Sky

An illustration from The Diary of a Girl in France in 1821 depicts washerwomen and tradespeople at work. 1912.

In 1911, the labor activist and songwriter Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” parodied the hymn “In the Sweet By-and-By” It dismissed the preachers’ exhortations and promises of a better future in eternity as lying, empty promises of “pie in the sky when you die” meant to keep the labor force docile and contentedly exploited.

“You’ll get pie in the sky when you die (That’s a lie!)”

— Joe Hill

The answer, the song argues, is not to listen to the preachers or give money to the grifters and grafters at the “Starvation Army” but for the workers of the world to unite, seize the means of production — “When the world and its wealth we have gained” — and enjoy pie in the here and now.

As it happens, we didn’t need a worker’s revolution to get and enjoy pie in the here and now, and it’s not because the labor movement seized bigger slices of a fixed pie. It’s because innovation and profit-seeking in a society that (timidly and incompletely) embraced the Bourgeois Deal made workers so much more productive that the pie grew. A lot.

In the labor-exploiting, cowboy-capitalist United States, you can get individual fruit pies for a dollar or two. Walmart.com lists name-brand Hostess Fruit Pies like the ones you might remember being advertised in Marvel Comics for $1.68 each. That means someone working for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour could get about 4.3 Hostess Fruit Pies for an hour’s labor. At 450 calories each, that means our minimum wage worker earns about 1935 calories of delicious pie for every hour of work. Walmart.com also lists “Freshness guaranteed” apple pie for $5.87, which means a minimum wage worker could feed a family of five a fresh apple pie every evening in less than an hour a day. Average hourly private-sector earnings of a little less than $35 an hour make it easier than ever to die in overstuffed, diabetic bliss instead of simply starving to death like so many of our ancestors did.

Contrary to what you might have been told, we have rising productivity, not the labor movement, to thank for all this pie. Labor unions might have increased their members’ average earnings by 14 percent or so if estimates by H. Gregg Lewis are to be believed, but this has come at the expense not of capitalists but of workers who aren’t union members (and who have to pay higher prices or enjoy lower returns on their investments) because of union contracts. What’s more, many union triumphs–like minimum wages–were explicitly designed to limit competition from people outside the union. Humanitarian gestures they were not.

Things could definitely be better, but do we need a revolution to save the workers from “the grafters” promising pie in the sky when we die? Doubtful. The next time an aspiring revolutionary promises pie now rather than pie in the sky when we die, ask if they’ve seen the price of pie lately. Maybe we will have pie in the sky when we die, but we can have plenty of it here and now — and if anything, we have so much of it at such low prices that if we’re not careful, it will get us to “the sky” a lot faster.

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