Posts Tagged ‘labor’
When people talk about suppression of wages in the United States, and the growing inequality between the richest Americans and the rest of us, Walmart and the heirs of Sam Walton have been the poster children with the biggest target on their back. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders notably said in a tone of moral outrage, “today the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America.”
The Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently published a report based on data about Walmart employees in Wisconsin who participate in federal social programs. The report quantifies the financial impact of Walmart employees on the U.S. social safety networks, and on the economy more generally. The report said, “rising income inequality and wage stagnation threaten the future of America’s middle class. While corporate profits break records, the share of national income going to workers’ wages has reached record lows.”
Thomas Stackpole released a story about the Democratic report on Mother Jones, and if a person is interested in the issue of low paying jobs, it is worth a read. The author circulated two of the progressive nostrums I mentioned in my article, “Working for Low Wages,” increasing the minimum wage and union organizing. Stackpole wrote, “Walmart’s history of suppressing local wages and busting fledgling union efforts is common knowledge.”
In my article, I made the case, based on my personal experience as a warehouse worker, that there is more to working a low wage job than the pay. There has to be because the cost of living, including health care, transportation, food, shelter, and interest on debt, is more than low wage jobs pay. Nothing would change if the minimum wage were raised to over $10 per hour as some propose. Low wage jobs fall short of a living wage, so people have to adapt, and one of the ways they do is to take advantage of governmental social programs. It’s not the only way people adapt, but it is an expense to taxpayers to provide these programs, and because Walmart is the largest private employer in the U.S. they are used as the whipping boy for the impact of their low wages on the expense of social programs to taxpayers.
Unions have to become more relevant to low wage workers before they have a chance in companies like Walmart. The repeated failures of union organizing attempts at Walmart serve my point. Part of the failure to organize is the resources the company’s management brings to bear on any organizing attempt. Part of it is the failure of unions to provide what is perceived by a majority of targeted workers as value. Creating a Walmart employee union does not seem to be in the cards despite all the noise in the corporate media. Sanders’ moral outrage, and ours, goes unaddressed, and will until unions become more relevant to the needs of low wage workers, as those workers perceive it.
The debate over Walmart employees using the social safety net seems a red herring, especially at the granular, local perspective of a person who has recently worked a low wage job. It is doubtful that government, especially one with close ties to Wall Street, will be able to do much to impact working people in a meaningful and positive way. Nor is it the role of government to preserve and build the middle class. It’s the working class that needs help and the two aren’t the same thing.
When government creates a program like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), reduced price school lunches, subsidized housing, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), they address poverty in the way government knows how. That a big company has employees on government programs is neither surprising, nor a source of the same moral outrage that should be expressed about the the disparities between the richest Americans and the rest of us.
Participating in government programs is one of the ways low wage workers get by. Shining light on Walmart and Sam Walton’s heirs contributes little to resolving the needs of working people, even if some with a national perspective are fond of doing so.
52 days of work for a nearby logistics company was an eye opener. In a world of constant electronic contact with smartphones and computers— via social media applications, on-line corporate media outlets and Internet discussion groups— our perceptions of society lean toward generalities and abstraction. Progressive commentary, about increasing the minimum wage and union organizing, seems disconnected when one works with others for low wages. As a worker, it is obvious there are inequalities in pay for work, and that the disparity between the richest Americans and the majority is widening. Yet people need an income, so they give up part of their freedom to toil in the fields of corporate masters, voluntarily.
In my short span as a warehouse worker, an endless river of people flowed through the building, each finding value, at least enough to attract them to the work, in the manual labor. Whether it was the prestige of having a job, working with friends, or socializing with new people, the monetary compensation was inadequate to have made it the main attraction. Some said they worked there to pay bills, but the compensation alone could not sustain the simplest of lives on the Iowa prairie.
The payday for low paying work is building a social network to help meet basic economic needs— one based in direct human contact, unfiltered by electronic media. A host of services was available because of the work relationship. A tattoo artist offered his ink, people of means offered loans, and gardeners offered to exchange vegetables and baked goods. There was ride-sharing, child care and a network of discovery of ways to escape low paying work for something better. Human society in places like this is like a living coral reef, where everyone’s needs can be met at a certain level.
Part of the learning was that such jobs are available, there is an ample supply of labor to fill them, physical stamina is required to perform the work, and a steady paycheck can play a role in a broader life. When we consider our choices in life— health care, a place to live, food to eat, taxes, loan interest and insurance— sustaining basic living can be problematic at $9.25 per hour without benefits. There is no simple resolution to this deficiency in pay for work.
Two progressive nostrums offer no help: organizing a union and increasing the minimum wage.
When I met Andy Stern, then president of Service Employees International Union, we talked about organizing logistics workers. Stern agreed labor unions lost the battle of maintaining union drivers and dock workers after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated trucking. He suggested there was a new organizing possibility in the logistics workers who are the next layer of employees in a global supply chain. He felt it fit well with what his union was doing organizing janitorial and health services workers. Having worked a career for a company that made the transition from all union to non-union as deregulation rolled out, I was skeptical.
After my experience at the warehouse, Stern’s hope to organize logistics workers seems unrealistic. Not only is the corporation that was the ultimate customer for our work removed from employees, there were multiple layers of removal. A lengthy probationary period working for a temporary employment service distanced beginning workers from the company. Multiple temporary employment companies were used. Likewise, the logistics company to whom we were leased from the temp agency was a subcontractor for the company, working on successive three-year contracts. Colleagues often did not know for whom they would be working if they successfully made it through the temporary employment agency to the logistics company as employees. On a given day, people doing the same work received paychecks from at least three different entities. When combined with high employee turnover, union organizing would be nearly impossible in such an environment.
The progressive talk about raising the minimum wage is a case of barking up the wrong tree. At two dollars an hour above minimum wage, the warehouse work attracted former box store employees, fast food restaurant employees and other minimum wage earners. The earnings alone were not enough to live, even modestly.
When I heard former labor secretary Robert Reich speak in Iowa City, one topic was the widening inequality in society and concentration of wealth among the richest one percent of the population. He pointed out that the minimum wage was not the correct measure of how wage earners were doing. What matters more is that the median wage keeps up with the overall economy, something it has not done. He recently wrote, “the problem is we haven’t been living nearly as well as our growing economy should have allowed us to live,” and that if wages tracked the economy, the median wage would be over $90,000 per year today ($43.27 per hour for a 40 hour work week). Progressives may feel good about advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, however, an increase would not address the fundamental problem wage earners face on a daily basis. A substantial portion of their economic survival depends on social networking rather than their rate of pay from a single job.
The eye opener for me while working at the warehouse was that in a workplace where no one had ever heard of me, my work was accepted by management and by my colleagues without question. People find value in working a job at any rate of pay because the real value is in the social networking it enables. One doesn’t hear that in the social or corporate media, but maybe we should.
One of my work mates this spring was an Iraq War veteran. Stationed in Tikrit, his military occupational specialty was fueling, although military contractors did most of the fueling work. He had a lot to say about war profiteers, including members of the Bush-Cheney administration. Locals he met did not like the American presence in Iraq. “Too many car bombs,” he said, something they experienced less when Saddam Hussein was in power.
Our supervisors discourage us from talking while we are in our cells (a.k.a. work stations), but when the computer network went down for about 45 minutes one night, we had a chance to talk. For me, that meant mostly listening.
I had been working as a temp in a warehouse in North Liberty for about two weeks. Not sure I could hack it— repetitive motion, standing and walking except during lunch break— my focus had been on staying healthy, and getting the work done as best I can. My goal was to survive, and beyond that, to learn everyone’s name and a little about them. Employees turnover at a rapid pace, so I hadn’t yet done very well on getting to know people. Mostly, it was nose to the grindstone.
It turned out that the Iraq War veteran found another warehouse where he could work through a temp agency for about two dollars more an hour. He was scheduled to start there on Monday. There was no surprise, as the discussion was overheard in the lunchroom the previous day. I wished him good luck with his new job, in case we didn’t get to speak to each other on Thursday.
Living paycheck-to-paycheck, and working poor was something I had not experienced until now. Measuring each week by the number of checks that will arrive, knowing it is enough to barely make regular expenses, can be a grind. I can see why my work mate took the new job— some might say, it’s a no-brainer. But a different view, is that temp work does not provide the means to earn a living wage in any case, at least temporary warehouse work. It was not designed to do so.
These jobs are part of the American outsourcing movement— clear evidence that the changes in a worker’s life regarding wages, and for whom we work, aren’t only happening when jobs move to Asia or Mexico. They are endemic to the Iowa experience.
My hourly wage cost the company $0.154 per kit I assembled. Add on whatever the temp agency gets for their fees, and it is not much. There are no paid benefits. In the context of the entire operation, the expense includes management, supervisors, equipment, material moving, overhead, supplies and external transportation. Inherent is the idea that there are cost savings to the principal manufacturer by doing business this way. And jobs are created, somewhere between 125 and 150 of them where I work.
My work mate and I worked well together. Probably because of our common military experience. At the end of the day, that may be all we had together, as our logistics process, like any in the transformation of the American workplace, could easily be changed, eliminated or improved. In many ways, logistics is a facilitator of the transformation of business. Wage workers have to take it how they can, and sometimes that means switching jobs for another $80 per week.
Brothers and Sisters,
On Wednesday, Aug. 28, communities across the country, and indeed across the world, will be celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington D.C.
The historic march has been called many names over the years, but the original name was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” and these were the original demands of the marchers.
-Meaningful Civil Rights Laws
-Massive Federal Works Program
-Full and Fair Employment
-The Right to Vote
-Adequate Integrated Education
The nature of the demands that the marchers had then are very similar to the list of values and issues that the Labor Movement and our coalition partners continue to fight for today.
Locally, Organizing for Action, led by Coalition member Kevin Perkins, is putting together an event to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy, and reaffirm our commitment to finishing the work that he and the Civil Right’s movement set out to accomplish 50 years ago. Numerous Community Coalition partners have placed their name on this event too in solidarity with the spirit of the anniversary.
How many members can your local contribute to this historic anniversary? Come on, give us everything you got– and don’t forget to showcase your local’s pride by wearing your union T-shirt and other gear.
Who: Quad Cities Community
What: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech
Where: Lafayette Park (4th St and Gaines) Davenport, IA
Flyer: See attached
Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California by Bruce Neuberger (Monthly Review Press)
Trampling Out the Vintage by Frank Bardacke (Verso)
A Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel (Bloomsbury Press)
A Book Review by Bennett Balmer, The Indypendent (Reprinted with permission of the author).
When Cesar Chavez died in 1993, he was a cultural icon and progressive hero. Cast into poverty at a young age, he worked the fields as a youth before he went on to fuse his brand of Catholicism and grassroots organizing into the United Farm Workers, a union that sought to raise his Mexican farm laborer base out of poverty and into power. Chavez built a fighting union from the ground up— Si se puede! (“Yes we can!”) was its battle cry— but by the time of his death he left an organization gutted of its farm worker base, purged of its organizing core and tattered from relentless grower assaults.
Over the past few years a crop of books has reassessed the UFW and its leader. Previous works on the UFW tended towards hagiography, but the union is decades removed from being a force in the fields and newer scholarship seeks to understand what happened. Lettuce Wars by Bruce Neuburger is the most recent addition and compliments Trampling Out the Vintage, possibly the definitive work on the UFW.
Both Neuburger and Trampling Out the Vintage author Frank Bardacke come from the 1960s New Left antiwar, civil rights and campus free speech movements. Both also worked multiple years in the vegetable fields, stooped over alongside a largely Latino workforce, and both books contain vignettes of workers and their lives, language and struggles. Where Lettuce Wars is a lively memoir, Trampling Out the Vintage is a densely packed comprehensive history.
Lettuce Wars reads like a troublemaker’s handbook because Neuburger was a rabble-rouser. Neuburger annoyed anti-communist UFW officials by espousing radical politics that harkened to China’s Cultural Revolution. Neuburger was also accused of arson (charges dropped), pursued by Mexican and American police and kicked out of a martyred farm worker’s funeral. (I recently met him; he’s an affable ESL instructor in San Francisco). While Neuburger traces the arc of the UFW competently, he was never close to the union’s core leadership.
Bardacke follows both major and minor events and political currents within the farm worker movement that provide mostly unflattering portraits of Chavez (and to a lesser extent, Dolores Huerta). Bardacke credits Chavez with winning better living conditions for farm workers and utilizing innovative techniques to build public support for consumer boycotts of California lettuce and table grapes. But it is clear Bardacke believes the organizing heft rested with other UFW leaders. Internal union debate raged on such topics as the effectiveness of boycotts vs. strikes and a volunteer vs. paid staff.
In Chavez, Bardacke finds a leader who mastered interpersonal communication but was wary of bombastic public speaking, opened the union to boycott volunteers but directed numerous purges, inspired Chicano farm workers to challenge the racist system that kept them poor but endorsed crackdowns of “illegal” Mexican immigrants, encouraged freedom of expression through farm worker theater and a newspaper but jettisoned both when they ran afoul of his script for the movement.
One of the most disturbing practices that Bardacke chronicles is the UFW’s pressuring staff to participate in the cultist Synanon’s attack therapy. Chavez utilized Synanon’s emphasis on participants revealing their innermost weaknesses to cow staffers and purge “assholes.”
Cesar Chavez’s Shadow
Getting out from under Chavez’s shadow proved nearly impossible for the UFW’s core and most left as a result of purges and personal clashes with Chavez. The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel tells the story of the UFW by reconstructing the personal experiences of eight of the union’s leading figures. It confirms, albeit in smaller doses, the larger themes in Lettuce Wars and Trampling Out the Vintage, of a dynamic union made powerful but also crippled by charismatic leadership.
Chavez’s purges often targeted perceived threats to his leadership. In 1976 Chavez shuttered the farm workers’ newspaper El Malcriado. He aimed his wrath at the paper’s new editor, Joe Smith, citing minor editorial disagreements. Chavez’s real target was Smith’s supervisor and veteran national boycott director Nick Jones. Both left the union and in the process Chavez threw out the baby out with the bath water, destroying the UFW’s boycott apparatus and vibrant newspaper. The Union of Their Dreams documents Smith’s appeal of his dismissal, “My character has been defamed and slandered. I am accused of…betraying the leadership [and] my friends..and being party to conspiracy to destroy this union…If we are allowed to slander and slur one another in private without being accountable our potential for self-destruction is unlimited and uncontrollable.”
Through the rise and fall of the UFW, the union faced fierce opposition from growers who presided over a racialized caste system that insulated them from their workers. Growers attempted to head off UFW militancy by signing sweetheart contracts with Teamster locals and then turning to the Teamsters to enforce labor peace if workers continued to agitate. Trampling Out the Vintage is chock-full of grower-cozy Teamster gangsterism and thuggish picket line brawls.
UFW vs. The Teamsters
With their bloated salaries and Mafia ties, the Teamsters leadership stood in stark contrast to the publicly pious and austere Chavez. The UFW eventually dislodged the Teamsters from the fields, but not until after dozens of union elections where the UFW saw mixed results — the Teamsters had to negotiate contracts that were close to UFW’s bargaining power or workers would abandon them.
Multiple forces converged to break the UFW, including Chavez’s siege mentality. In 1981, he moved to smash worker influence over the union’s board in order to maintain his absolute power over the UFW, but also defanged the union’s last defense— its militant worker leadership. While reading these reassessments of Chavez and his union another idea comes forth— perhaps Chavez was not as different from his Teamster foils in the fields. Chavez doled out numerous positions in the union and its non-profit arms to family members. Today the UFW represents 6,000 members; in the 1970s it was 50,000 strong— though many unions have experienced similar declines, if not death. Meanwhile, California agribusiness booms with gross revenues routinely near $40 billion a year employing over 400,000 mostly Mexican farm workers.
Thank You, Strike Again
How Low Wage Workers are Changing the Face of Labor
As a worker at The Protein Bar, a quick-service eatery in Chicago’s glitzy North Michigan Avenue shopping district, Amie Crawford is very important to America’s unions: Even though she doesn’t belong to one, she may be a harbinger of new life for the labor movement at a time when even friends are preparing its obituary.
Last year, Crawford joined the “Fight for 15” campaign, a labor and community-supported project that aims to improve conditions for workers in Chicago’s central business districts. The campaign demands a $15 minimum wage and the right to form unions without interference from management.
Crawford recruited other fast food and retail workers to join neighborhood marches and helped form a workers’ association, Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago [...]
Article continued here.
In a strip mall in Cedar Rapids, a temp agency opens at 6 a.m., ready to place workers in temporary jobs. A registered applicant can enter the waiting room, sign in on a clipboard at the counter, and wait for placement in a job in construction, hospitality or warehouse work— often the same day. There is no talk about careers or perquisites, and some days a person gets placed, others not. Every time I entered, someone was waiting for a placement— there seemed to be no shortage of labor. In a society where people need paying work, this is one place they find it.
Managing the bottom line for a large or small company, the cost of human resources stands out as a high percentage of expense. Owners and executives seek to manage these expenses— their argument is they have to to remain viable in the marketplace. They will do what is legal and necessary to optimize the dollars spent on people. One of the ways they do this is to transfer the risk and expense of having employees to other entities, like the companies that employ temp workers.
We hear a lot about outsourcing and off-shoring, but until lately little attention has been paid to temp workers: that group of low-paid people that works in our community, doing office work, construction, hospitality, light manufacturing, property maintenance and more. Large corporations have become masters of outsourcing, and when we ask where have all the jobs gone, some of them went back into the community in the form of subcontractors that use temp workers, and take expense off the bottom line.
Mike Grabell wrote an article in ProPublica titled, “The Expendables: How the Temps Who Power Corporate Giants Are Getting Crushed” which is worth reading. He wrote, “the people [...] are not day laborers looking for an odd job from a passing contractor. They are regular employees of temp agencies working in the supply chain of many of America’s largest companies– Walmart, Macy’s, Nike, Frito-Lay. They make our frozen pizzas, sort the recycling from our trash, cut our vegetables and clean our imported fish. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them to fill our store shelves. They are as important to the global economy as shipping containers and Asian garment workers.”
Massachusetts passed a temporary workers right to know law that requires temporary staffing agencies to provide basic information about jobs offered to temporary workers. Essentially, it is a temp worker bill of rights.
Perhaps Iowa should consider a similar law, even if groups like the American Staffing Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council would be expected to fight it.
On the other hand, Iowa is a state where organized labor has struggled to pass any initiative in the legislature, notably the recently failed campaigns for fair share and choice of doctor. This when Democrats, the party that received substantial political contributions from organized labor, controlled both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.
Temp workers are here to stay in Iowa. The protections they have are the bare minimum provided by the law. Companies push the envelope of the law to keep their bottom line expense of workers very low. For progressives, helping protect temp workers in Iowa should be on our short list of priorities. The situation lies mostly below the radar and is calling for justice.
“No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American history textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance.” –Bill Adelman
On Saturday, June 8th, Quad City Next Up will host a bus trip from Rock Island, Illinois, to Chicago for a Labor History Tour. The tour begins at the site of the Haymarket Affair in 1886 and continues to other locations significant to Labor History including the Haymarket Monument in Waldheim Cemetery which was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1997 – the only cemetery monument to ever receive such a designation.
Saturday, June 8th , 2013, 9 am – 9 pm
Meet us at UA Local 25 Hall (4600 46th Avenue, Rock Island, IL) at 9:00 a.m. We will take a bus to Chicago and begin our tour at Paddy O’Fegan’s (204 N. Halsted St.) at 12:00 p.m. for a drink before departing at 1:00 p.m. The Illinois Labor History Society will be our tour guide.
$20 includes a seat on the bus and a boxed lunch. Please contact Brett Utz to RSVP 309-738-1521 or
email@example.com – Tickets will sell fast so to reserve your seat you must pre-pay –
We will depart from Chicago by 7:00 pm and arrive back at the UA Local 25 Hall by 9:00 pm. This will be a long day, so please dress comfortably and wear walking shoes. You may also bring coolers for the bus ride.
We will travel by bus through some of the world’s greatest labor history sites and drink beer along the way!
The history of the Haymarket Affair is well-known around the world, and in fact is the genesis of May Day or International Labor Day. However, workers in the U.S. remain largely ignorant of the events that led up to the Haymarket Affair and the establishment of an eight-hour work day.
Long before the company now publicly traded as CASE IH, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of farm implements, the company was known as International Harvester, and the precursor to IH was a Chicago company called McCormick Reaper Works. It was here, just two days after the massive May 1st strike for an eight-hour workday that police fired on a group of locked out workers killing two of them. The bloodshed against workers amidst a largely non-violent movement for workers’ rights led to the organization of a rally in Haymarket Square scheduled for May 4th, the following evening.
You can imagine how tense was the atmosphere at the time. A depression which began in 1884 had left 24% of workers unemployed. Wages were cut, and workers were forced to work 10-12 hour daily shifts. Strikes by workers were often violently met from hired armed guards called Pinkertons. The exploitation of immigrant workers led to brutal divisions between native born and newly emigrated Americans. Poverty was rampant, and with the exception of a few faith-based charities, people had little to no assistance to help them survive. There was no minimum wage, no requirements for lunch or other breaks, no minimum work age so often children would be hired to displace their parents. No laws to protect workers from dangerous, deadly working conditions, and no workers compensation for when a worker was injured or killed on the job. So workers started to organize, and the massive 80,000 person strike for an 8 hour work day in Chicago on May 1st was seen as a major threat to the industrial barons at the time that had profited enormously from the lack of workers’ rights.
The combination of these circumstances led to the what is now known as the Haymarket Affair on May 4th. This history and other significant labor history sites will be discussed on the Labor History Tour.
Oh, and did I mention there would be a Bar Crawl in the mix?
To learn more about Haymarket, visit the Illinois Labor History Society at:
Sometimes a Great Notion – Directed by Paul Newman. Filmed 1970. It was released to widespread dismissal in 1971, stars Paul Newman and Henry Fonda and Lee Remick.
In a supremely ironic film, those two great bastions of Hollywood liberalism – Paul Newman and Henry Fonda – star as father and son scabs. Their rugged individualism, community-destroying strike defiance and overall bravado are the Alpha of America.
Paul Newman’s handsome misogyny is as disarming as Henry Fonda’s loveable curmudgeon. They chop down centuries old forests, rise before the sun, drink beer, hunt, alternately fuck or ignore their beautiful servile wives. Henry and Hank Stamper – their characters in the film – live by their family creed, “never give a inch.”
The film is based on a story by Ken Kesey, of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest fame. I was written a year after Congress passed the Equal Pay Act mandating equal pay for women. It was filmed two years after the 1968 French General strike, a student-led protest against austerity measures that swelled into a strike of over 4 million workers, and the same year US Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, mandating safety regulations for workers.
The film doesn’t convey the depth of character to the union members or women in the film – covered in more depth in the original novel’s 650 pages. It is essentially a male-heirarchy tale, and the film remains faithful critic to their hierarchy. The Stamper clan cling to their molehill as vigilantly as they uproot its trees. Cynically – because that is the essence of Our Masculine Myth of American Exceptionalism – at the end of the film, our heroes Henry and Hank win. Deperately, glorifyingly. Their indomitable man-conquers-man, man-conquers-nature, man-conquers-society spirit lifts them, and we who sympathized with them, to a state of hollow despair. You are left to feel like the centuries-old forests torn apart by Henry, Hank, and even the workers when they are not on strike: ravaged. Because their ethos is pathological.
Kesey considered it his best novel, better than his notorious earlier work, One Flew Over the Cookoos nest. But the film and book remain little known to most Paul Newman, Henry Fonda or Cokoos nest fans.
It’s live streaming online on Netflix, possibly on hulu or other free sites.
On January 17th, 2013, Tavis Smiley moderated a panel of public intellectuals on the topic of poverty in America – a topic so rarely discussed, you’d think it was a peripheral issue rather than the root cause (and consequence) of so many other hazards. It isn’t taken seriously. Just another set of statistics contorted to fit one’s political agenda. However, at a moment when the country is considering further devastating cuts to health and human services, job training, food stamps and education, this conversation is one we must have more often and with a great deal of seriousness. Click here to watch it on C-SPAN
Human poverty does exist in the US - in spades. But unlike poverty of years past, poverty is now sublimated. Federal Food Stamp and free and reduced lunch programs shroud poverty from view. The poor stand next to you in the grocery line, and next to their classmates at the school lunch line. Because the cheapest food also happens to be the unhealthiest, malnourishment is more often draped in obesity rather than emaciation. The poor live off the beaten path and in neighborhoods we’re not supposed to go to ’cause they’re “bad.” There aren’t bread lines in the streets or folks in overcrowded welfare or unemployment offices – they are online, call-in only. The poor are rarely found lobbying at the Capitols, but they are plentiful in morgues and prisons and in the military.
As writer and artist John Berger noted, “The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied, but written off as trash.”
The day after Tavis Smiley hosted that panel discussion, President Obama was inaugurated on MLK Holiday and on MLKs Bible [see Cornel West’s take on this at minute 25-30 in the program]. Though he spoke about gay rights, about the rights of girls being allowed to succeed, and on the vital issue of UNIVERSAL SUFFERAGE, Obama failed to mention Organized Labor, which along with education and Social Security, is among the most successful anti-poverty programs in the U.S. Josh Eidelson discussed this in an article for Truthout.
Obama made a point about investing in schools in order to create good “workers,” but he failed to note that we then suppress their abilities to organize so they can, in turn, bargain dignified wages and benefits for their labors. As union membership rose from the 1950s through the 1970s and then declined from the 1970s to current day, the number of Americans living in poverty mimicked the rise and fall.
Then two days after Beyoncé lip-synced the National Anthem at the ceremonial swearing-in, and the sycophantic press got over their post-ball hangovers, the Big Story of the day was that union membership in the US had dropped to a 90+ year low. Many offered their reasons for why this is so, but few if any dug into the correlations between poverty and unionization, from the Industrial era until now.
The current legislative session in Iowa now must decide what to do with the billion dollar surplus earned from years of spending cuts to essential programs like court services, unemployment offices, jobs training programs and many others. Instead of using this opportunity to help Iowa’s poor (an all-time high number of Iowans currently receive food stamps), Governor Branstad has proposed sweeping commercial and industrial property tax reform. But the problem with his vision of reform is the poor do not own commercial and industrial property. There are no tax credits for living in a car, a shelter, a family or friend’s sofa, or in a pay-by-the-week motel.
The Iowa legislature should be recognized for its attempts last year to address poverty by passing legislation to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit which targets poor workers, and by supplementing Iowa food banks with $500,000 in state assistance. Unfortunately those attempts were in vain as Governor Branstad vetoed both (he actually vetoed EITC twice last year).
Partisans of all sides could possibly agree that it’s not that the poor shouldn’t “get” government subsidies/assistance; it’s that they shouldn’t “need” it. But the realities of our economic model that repress workers’ rights to organize result in enormous human need. But an economy is man-made. Policies are set forth through our public and private institutions where poor people are being told they have to work harder, and they are going to have to do with less.
The Iowa legislature’s number one priority in dealing with the budget surplus should be to address poverty and health and human services. Women and children make up the largest segment falling into poverty. One in four children under the age of five is food insecure. Poverty’s impact on children is immeasurable – how do you calculate immorality? Quantify psychological destruction? Measure the violence of broken families? You can only describe it, and in doing so your heart should break if indeed there is a soul still in you that hasn’t been erased by bean counting economic theories.
To find out more about Tavis Smiley’s poverty summit, go to Afuturewithoutpoverty.com or look up: #povertymustend on Twitter. At the website, you can sign a letter to the White House that demands the President give a major public policy address on eradication of poverty in America and convene a White House conference on the eradication of poverty.