from the editor

STARVATION Wages

With politicians on the take, who will protect the people from exploitation?

Posted

The American worker is getting screwed. And we’re doing it to ourselves.

Every day, people wake up hungry, work a full day, go home and fall asleep with an empty knot where their supper should be. Instead of growing in wealth as they age, every year they get leaner, hungrier and older, their cost of living increasing along with all those pesky age-related maladies, while their income remains essentially the same.

Today, a minimum-wage worker in Florida lucky enough to have a full time job earns just $324 a week before taxes, or $16,850 a year—just a skosh above the federal poverty line for a family of two. This means that no matter how demeaning the hat and hairnet, how demoralizing the parroted lines they have to chirp every single time someone calls or comes in the door, or how many pieces of flair the corporate overlords decree they wear, they’ll probably never get ahead, never own a home or a reliable car.

It’s hard to be upwardly mobile when your feet are nailed to the floor.

Natural disasters like Hurricane Irma bring this harsh truth into sharp focus. For the comfortably middle class, itself a shrinking demographic making do with less every year, a few days’ furlough and some extra expenses are a minor inconvenience in an otherwise easy existence. For all the janitors, cooks and clerks out there punching that $8.10-an-hour clock, a few days of lost wages may be the difference between making rent or getting evicted, driving to work or relying on the chariots of JTA, taking their medicine with a meal or choosing either medicine or a meal. Add a tree through the roof or three feet of water in the den, and they’re looking at a shelter or Section 8, if they don’t live in such already.

Yet, thanks to leaders like Ronald Reagan who famously vilified “welfare queens,” it’s become popular to criticize handouts, to demonize welfare recipients and sneer about entitlement spending.

That’s why any time a candidate suggests raising the minimum wage, or requiring employers to provide paid maternity or paternity leave, or the government offering affordable childcare, or switching to a single payer healthcare system (aka socialized insurance), their opponent clambers up onto the bully pulpit and crows long and hard about all the small businesses that will close if they have to pay a single red cent more in wages, or taxes, or to make sure working mothers don’t end up wearing diapers to work days after giving birth because the family can’t afford for them to miss a shift. As if these business owners are somehow more entitled to a living wage than the people who sweep their floors, assemble their sandwiches and answer their phones. To add insult to injury, these are usually the same politicians who insinuate that ‘poor’ is an inherent condition caused by inferiority rather than bad luck and circumstance.

Fewer people would be on welfare if we raised the minimum wage, fewer families would be homeless or on food stamps if daycare were affordable, or if a pregnancy weren’t tantamount to losing at least two months’ pay. (Meanwhile, every clinic providing reproductive care that includes abortion risks losing funding.) But that logic is lost on these candidates and those of us who vote for them.

Everyone knows politicians are bought and paid for, that the hollow words spewing from their mouths like so much excrement are essentially solicitations for campaign donations. There’s no sincerity behind it, except inasmuch as they sincerely want to be reelected and are sincerely in positions of power.

It wasn’t always this way. Pre-Citizens United, politicians were slimy; now they seem to crawl from the very depths of depravity and vice, power-hungry creatures from the darkest trenches on Earth. Sure, some stand for something, others begin with good intentions—but after they give it up to the special interests, dark money, focus groups and pay-to-play peeps, there’s little valor left to go around for the poor, downtrodden and oppressed who are getting sicker and hungrier every year.

For many decades, the tiny fraction of wealthy and powerful people who run this country have been chipping away at the laws that created the strong middle class of the 20th century. Millennials grew up in the twilight of the golden years of the middle class, blithely unaware that the good times were not going to keep rolling.

Little by little, they’ve undermined workers’ protections and alms for the poor, leaving people like you and me to foot the bill for those left behind. Who pays when a mother can’t afford her child’s surgery? We do. Who pays when a family’s income doesn’t cover rent, daycare and dinner? We do. Who strokes the check when a third of the population is income-insecure and a major disaster hits? We all do.

Remember that next time you vote.

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MKonopacki

Thanks to Claire Goforth for her column against starvation wages. However, begging for noblesse oblige from politicians is no solution. Only by forming labor unions can workers raise their living standards.

Before the 1937 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), unions were illegal. During the Great Depression massive labor unrest forced both political parties to legalize unions and enforce collective bargaining. Through labor unions, workers created a broad middle class for the first time in U.S. history.

But a brutal backlash by employers and plutocratic politicians has reduced the number of union workers in the private sector from 35% in the 1950s to less than 7% today. The decline of the middle class matches exactly the forced decline of labor unions.

We may detest Confederate statues, but the real monuments to white supremacy are the Jim Crow labor laws we still live with. The NLRA exempted farm and domestic workers, jobs largely held by African Americans. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, supported by the states of the old Confederacy like Florida, instituted “right-to-work” laws to weaken unions.

We need to vigorously rebuild the labor movement. Then to ensure labor peace politicians of both parties will have to listen to us - again.

Mike Konopacki, St. Augustine

Thursday, October 5|Report this