labor Is It Bad Enough Yet?
THE police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.
You get it: This is the United States, which, with the incoming Congress, might actually get worse.
This in part explains why we’re seeing spontaneous protests nationwide, protests that, in their scale, racial diversity, anger and largely nonviolent nature, are unusual if not unique. I was in four cities recently — New York, Washington, Berkeley and Oakland — and there were actions every night in each of them. Meanwhile, workers walked off the job in 190 cities on Dec. 4.
The root of the anger is inequality, about which statistics are mind-boggling: From 2009 to 2012 (that’s the most recent data), some 95 percent of new income has gone to the top 1 percent; the Walton family (owners of Walmart) have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of the country’s people combined; and “income mobility” now describes how the rich get richer while the poor ... actually get poorer.
The progress of the last 40 years has been mostly cultural, culminating, the last couple of years, in the broad legalization of same-sex marriage. But by many other measures, especially economic, things have gotten worse, thanks to the establishment of neo-liberal principles — anti-unionism, deregulation, market fundamentalism and intensified, unconscionable greed — that began with Richard Nixon and picked up steam under Ronald Reagan. Too many are suffering now because too few were fighting then.
What makes this an exciting time is that we are beginning to see links among issues that we have overlooked for far too long.
In 1970, after spending a year in New York absorbed by concerns seemingly as disparate as ending the war, supporting the rights of Black Panthers to get fair trials (and avoid being murdered) and understanding the role of men in the women’s movement, I — and others — had conversations like this: “Let’s make people understand that all of those issues, plus poverty and racism and the environment and more, are all part of the same picture, and that fixing things means citizens have to regain power and work in their own interests.”
Of course we failed, as others did before and since. But these same things can be said now, and they’re being said by people of all colors. When underpaid workers begin their strikes by saying “I can’t breathe,” or by holding their hands over their heads and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” they’re recognizing that their struggle is the same as that of African-Americans demanding dignity, respect and indeed safety on their own streets.
And of course it’s the same struggle: “It’s the same people,” says Saru Jayaraman, the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Young people working in fast food are the same people as those who are the victims of police brutality. So the Walmart folks are talking about #blacklivesmatter and the #blacklivesmatter folks are talking about taking on capital.”
The N.A.A.C.P.’s Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a leader of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, captures the national yearning this reflects. “I believe that deep within our being as a nation there is a longing for a moral movement that plows deep into our souls,” he writes. “We are flowing together because we recognize that the intersectionality of all of these movements is our opportunity to fundamentally redirect America.” (The full text of Dr. Barber’s email is on my blog.)
“All of these movements”? Yes: The demands of the fast-food workers movement — $15 minimum wage and a union — have helped to unite movements among airport workers, hospital workers, retail workers and more.
There are already results. Two years ago, there was talk of raising the minimum wage to $10; now $15 per hour is seen as the bare minimum. Seattle and San Francisco have already mandated this, Chicago’s City Council voted to gradually increase to a $13 minimum by 2019, Oakland will move to $12.25 in March and a proposal is being considered in Los Angeles. (And although the amounts were woefully inadequate, four red states voted to approve minimum wage increases last month, showing that the concept resonates across party lines.)
Meanwhile, the credibility of those who argue that employers “can’t afford” to raise pay — McDonald’s paid its C.E.O. $9.5 million last year — is nil. For one thing, there are examples of profitable businesses that treat their employees decently, and even countries where fast-food workers can make ends meet. And for another, underpaying workers simply shifts the cost of supporting them onto public coffers. As Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont says, “In essence, taxpayers are subsidizing the wealthiest family in America.” That would be the Waltons. (Incredibly, many Republicans still want the working poor to pay more taxes.)
Then, of course, there are the matters of justice and morality. It simply isn’t right to pay people a sub-living wage with no potential for more, and as the comedian Chris Rock says, employers would pay even less if they could get away with it.
The #blacklivesmatter movement — there’s no better description — is already having an impact as well. Don’t think for a second we’d be having a national debate about police brutality (one that includes many on the right), or a White House plan to examine and fix law enforcement, without demonstrations in the streets.
The initial Obama plan is encouraging but lacking, and that’s all the more reason to keep demonstrating. (What good are body cameras, by the way? The videotape of Rodney King’s beating was seen around the world yet resulted in acquittals; Eric Garner’s choking death, viewed millions of times online, didn’t even lead to a trial, even though police chokeholds are banned in New York City.) Besides, as Sanders says, “Even if every cop were a constitutional lawyer and a great person, if you have 30 percent unemployment among African-American young people you still have a huge problem.”
I have spent a great deal of time talking about the food movement and its potential, because to truly change the food system you really have to change just about everything: good nutrition stems from access to good food; access to good food isn’t going to happen without economic justice; that isn’t going to happen without taxing the superrich; and so on. The same is true of other issues: You can’t fix climate change or the environment without stopping the unlimited exploitation of natural and human resources (see Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”). Same with social well-being.
Everything affects everything. It’s all tied together, and the starting place hardly matters: A just and righteous system will have a positive impact on everything we care about, just as an unjust, exploitative system makes everything worse.
Increasingly, it seems, there’s an appetite and even unity to take on the billionaire class. Let’s recognize that if we are seeing positive change now, it’s in part because elected officials respond to pressure, and let’s remember that that pressure must be maintained no matter who is in office. Even if Bernie Sanders were to become president, the need for pressure would continue.
“True citizenship,” says Jayaraman of Berkeley — echoing Jefferson — “is people continually protesting.” Precisely.