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The American Labor Movement, 2.0

There’s been much media hubbub in the past few weeks over higher wages at some of America’s biggest retailers. Mega-chains are trumpeting “increases” in employee pay and basking the inevitable PR glow that comes with appearing to actually give a shwhit about their workers.

It began last summer, with jumps in hourly wages at Gap Stores and IKEA. Then, in mid-February, America’s Largest Employer (Walmart, that bastion of family-run feudalism) gave word that it too it will “significantly” increase the base hourly wage it pays employees.

So that’s a good thing, right? Not so fast.

ShinolaJust as the Wal was self-righteously putting the lid back on its massive can of Shinola, its duplicitous approach was, like a Bill O’Reilly war JFK murdered nuns Los Angeles riots story, being exposed: Higher hourly wages at its stores and elsewhere in this new wonder we call “the service economy” are being undercut. Turns out nine (or 10, or 20) dollars an hour is meaningless, without also getting sufficient time on the clock.

Throughout retail, unpredictable work schedules are the x-factor Walmart and other companies use to keep part-time employees – who Walmart itself admits comprise half its workforce – down. As a condition of getting one of these crummy jobs in the first place, employees must agree that the employer can dictate, with little or no advance notice, not just when but where they must show up, and that includes part-timers – making it impossible to supplement their wonderful, higher hourly wage with the second (or third) job that might – might – make it possible to earn an actual living. And that, it appears, is exactly how Walmart and other retailers like it.

This renders the go-to response of self-described free-marketeers – you know, the old, “If they don’t like the working and employment conditions, they can work someplace else” – obsolete, and makes what I just described as duplicitous a few ‘graphs up more like tri-plicitous: Service-sector employers are (1) posing as magnanimous with big public statements about their “higher wages,” but (2) limiting hours employees work, while (3) requiring them to be available for and accept whatever schedules they dream up with zero notice, obliterating the line between employee and indentured servant. And these conditions are not the exception but, increasingly, the rule.

The raw numbers and overall percentage of people employed “involuntarily” as part-timers – workers craving full-time hours but refused them by their current employer, and/or unable to work a second job due to scheduling abuses by that employer – have risen dramatically in the past several years, as reported in the Times piece at the link above.
IMHO long

Joining the chorus of “Look How Great We Are” just two days ago was TJX, corporate overlord of T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s Stores. Following Walmart’s lead with feel-good propaganda about the $9-per-hour minimum its workers will earn come June, one can’t help but think abusive scheduling in their stores isn’t far behind.

Something else lost in all this “good news for workers”: Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have already or will soon increase their minimum wages above the current, shameful, $7.25 federally-set rate anyway.

And just like that, we’re up to quad-plicitous. (Scroll down to the chart on this page for a complete listing of minimum wages in each state.)

Of course, raising the minimum wage in North Carolina is not even on the agenda. That would require vision and genuine concern for working people on the part of North Carolina legislators, who have shown repeatedly the only concerns on their collective radar are those shared by campaign donors and the state’s former budget director, whose own employment practices even Walmart is too proud to emulate.

Here in Pitt County, a single person – that means no children or other dependents – needs to work 40 hours a week at $8.85 an hour to make ends meet. This is known as the “living wage.”

These numbers are derived and updated regularly through an ongoing research partnership between MIT and Penn State called “Poverty in America.” Among the tools it has produced is a living wage calculator for every county and city in the United States. The homepage of the project is here.

Poverty in America studies issues similar to those researched at UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity – until earlier today, that is, when the neocons with whom Art Pope and Pat McCrory stacked the UNC Board of Governors took the unprecedented step of shutting the center down, in apparent retribution for its director’s constant, pull-no-punches criticism of conservative lawmakers and their economic policies. It was the first time the Board of Governors of the UNC system, in its long history, has ever dictated (there really is no better word) to any university in the system how it could allocate funds. (Just in case you’re still not convinced that “conservative” interests do not include “conversing” state-supported inquiry and education.)

Meanwhile, back in Pitt County…

A single adult with one child here needs a living wage of $18.57 (again, at 40 hours per week). And for a “typical” family of four – two working adults and two children – both adults must make $18.65 an hour, just under $39,000 a year, each, just to ensure there is food on the table, a roof over their heads in a heated structure, and that their health, sanitation, transportation, child care, and other basic needs are met.

So, how do we get there?

I was hoping you’d ask.

Also in the news – though far less widely reported than the pseudo-raises around which mega-retailers are strutting like bantam roosters – are recent work slowdowns and stoppages at key infrastructure facilities across our country.

Dock workers at West coast ports slowed their loading and unloading of cargo ships for most of last year. Despite editorials like this one in mainstream media outlets, which give corporate behemoths cover by assailing working people in one of the country’s most dangerous jobs, workers prevailed. They did so through the only strategy that’s ever reliably called profits-before-people robber barons to account: Organized, determined action that hits them where it hurt$ mo$t.

The actions along the Pacific Coast captured the imaginations of activists, in the activist-rich environment that is, increasingly, the American workplace. Their sensibilities are spreading to others who labor for windfall-profiting corporations: A nearly month-long strike at key U.S. oil refineries now affects 15 facilities producing a fifth of the nation’s gasoline. And despite corporate nonchalance and statements about how seamlessly they are keeping up production, at least one major producer, Royal Dutch Shell, is looking for resolution according to Reuters.

A living wage and enough working hours to earn it are basic to the American idea. Making both the norm won’t be easy, but workers are beginning to awaken, and unite – and not as mere members of unions whose corrupt leadership is as rotten as that of the rank-and-file’s employers.

No, the American Labor Movement version 2.0, must, if history has taught us anything, ensure workers speak for themselves – and are heard.

Thanks largely to the connectivity and proliferation of data available through this medium, there are growing signs that working Americans are doing just that.

Anthony Noel, an award-winning editor and journalist, is co-founder of the Greenville Guardian. His column appears monthly.

Responses (3)

  1. Ed Griffith says:

    The Greenville Guardian is lucky indeed to have Anthony Noel as one of its writers. What a treasure trove of documentation on the real economy!

  2. Donald Clement says:

    I think the Right is happy to continue the debate (and play the games Noel describes) over minimum wage and working hours because it diverts our attention from the incredible wealth gap in the country. Tweaking minimum wages amidst the hand-wringing from the Right about increased consumer prices and lost opportunities for young workers to learn a work ethic and gain experience is just a fly buzzing around the elephant in the room. As long as profit counts more than people, as long as political power counts more than principle, as long as money shamelessly buys political power, we’ll face a cynical political climate that opposes and degrades efforts to re-establish a semblance of fairness and opportunity for workers, both blue- and white-collared. Noel’s reference to indentured servitude is apt. But in my bleaker moods, I wonder if we’ve recreated a neo-feudal age. Kings and lords thought all was right with the world as long as vassals and serfs knew their place and provided the labor and taxes to keep them in power–as God intended. Today’s lords of industry think all is well as long as profits sustain them, and their paid politicians keep costs down–as the God of the Market intends.

    • Anthony Noel says:

      Well said, Donald. We’re seeing a replay of the age of robber barons which preceded our first labor movement, in the late 19th Century. But now they own not only civilian commerce and their employees, they’ve added direct involvement in our overseas military adventurism, secured not through lobbying but simply purchasing, arms locked with labor leaders like Richard Trumka and Leo Gerard, whole political parties.

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