Touch labor: “Production (hands-on) labor reasonably and consistently applied to a unit of work.” (Source: BusinessDictionary.com.) Also called “direct labor.” The cost of assembly-line workers, for example, is classified as touch labor or direct labor, while the cost of supervisors, janitors, and security guards is classified as indirect labor.
In contemporary industry, touch labor is considered largely undesirable. South Dakota-based Craxel, for example, which creates “advanced infrastructure solutions that result in appreciable cost savings” for information-technology companies, lists “reduce touch labor” as its number-one value proposition:
Deploying and managing IT requires a huge amount of touch labor. The coming paradigm shift in computing will cause a dramatic reduction in the touch labor for installing, managing, and reconfiguring IT.
Touch labor is not included in the OED or in any of the major North American dictionaries. I first encountered it over the weekend—which, appropriately, is the Labor Day weekend here in the US—in “Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,” an article by Mike Lofgren published Sept. 3 on Truthout.org. Lofgren, a Republican, retired in June after serving for 28 years as a Congressional staffer; his article is a biting critique of what he calls the “political terrorism” of the modern Republican Party.
Here’s the relevant passage:
[T]he economic justification for Pentagon spending is even more fallacious when one considers that the $700 billion annual DOD budget creates comparatively few jobs. The days of Rosie the Riveter are long gone; most weapons projects now require very little touch labor. Instead, a disproportionate share is siphoned off into high-cost research and development (from which the civilian economy benefits little); exorbitant management expenditures, overhead and out-and-out padding; and, of course, the money that flows back into the coffers of political campaigns.
The Democratic Party and the media don’t escape Lofgren’s scorn, but he reserves his most withering attacks for his own party. Here’s an example:
Republicans have attempted to camouflage their amorous solicitude for billionaires with a fog of misleading rhetoric. [House Speaker] John Boehner is fond of saying, “we won't raise anyone’s taxes,” as if the take-home pay of an Olive Garden waitress were inextricably bound up with whether Warren Buffett pays his capital gains as ordinary income or at a lower rate. Another chestnut is that millionaires and billionaires are “job creators.” US corporations have just had their most profitable quarters in history; Apple, for one, is sitting on $76 billion in cash, more than the GDP of most countries. So, where are the jobs?
Read the rest of the article. For another perspective on employment, along with some sobering graphs, read Robert Reich on “The Limping Middle Class.” (Reich, who currently teaches at UC Berkeley, was Bill Clinton's secretary of labor.)
And have a happy Labor Day. Or as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne suggests, with a dose of sarcasm:
Let’s get it over with and rename the holiday “Capital Day.” We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil — the phrase itself seems antique — as worthy of genuine respect.
Hat tip for the Lofgren article: Emily Berk.