Jeanna Smialek of Bloomberg reports on a topic that it describes as “depressing” – wages. Despite steady increases in hiring, Smialek notes that wages have increased at a 2% rate since the end of the “Great Recession” in 2009. She cites two other measures that have held back pay increases: low productivity and low inflation. Bloomberg focuses on how this news impacts the economy. I’m more concerned with working people and what they are paid. More people are employed every month, and consumer sentiment remains negative. That doesn’t make sense. It would seem that increased opportunities to get new jobs and change jobs should make workers happier. However, as this fine article notes, too many Americans feel that their income is not letting them get ahead. If that’s the new normal, we’re in big trouble.
It’s not unusual to hear stories about worker exploitation in China. More and more, it’s also not unusual for Chinese workers to resist. Recently, workers in a plant outside of Beijing held an American plant owner hostage for 6 days to protest low wages and layoffs. The dispute ended when the plant owner agreed to the workers terms, which he is now claiming to be the result of an act of coercion.
There are two reasons being given for this situation. Employees say they were owed wages. Local news claims that the owner was trying to outsource jobs to India. Both explanations show what hardships Chinese workers face. China’s own population means that it will almost always have a surplus population for employers to exploit. Add India’s billion plus to China’s billion plus, and we have an ugly situation for some of the world’s poorest working people.
What will they do? Will kidnappings of bosses increase, or will actions grow even more radical? The great American poet Langston Hughes captured this situation and mood in his description of a “Dream Deferred": “Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun. . . . Or does it explode?”
In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Sandra Guy tells the story of a young man who chose to take part-time jobs over the past four years. He did this to write a book. Now he’s found that he’s not able to save or put money aside for retirement. Sadly, this story does not stop with people who have chosen part-time work. Many Americans are stuck in part-time jobs that offer no chance to save for proverbial rainy day.
Even many full-time employees have faced several years of small raises or no raises at all. One of my clients is married to a corporate lawyer. Her husband has not had a raise in 5 years. His company stopped contributing to 401K savings. This example shows that even accomplished professionals are facing an ever tightening noose of insecurity.
What will we do? Too many people are asking that question.
Several articles on two of my favorite websites, Daily Kos and Common Dreams¸ are reporting on or reflecting on worker actions against Walmart. I call what’s going on “worker actions” because Walmart employees have no union or rights. Hopefully worker actions will turn into consumer conscience and citizen action. We need to understand that we are all in this soup together. Exploitation of one worker demeans all of us.
Laura Clawson of Daily Kos gives us Rush Limbaugh’s take on the protest. Naturally, it’s not positive. Limbaugh whines about an assault on “capitalism and the private sector.” He never mentions how Walmart treats its employees, or how the Walton family has benefited from changes in the tax code, which makes them the biggest “Takers” of all time, beneficiaries of corporate welfare.
Meteor Blades, also from Daily Kos, covers the protests and offers links to follow the action. What I found most inspirational is that the protest are shouting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, slave wages have got to go.” The problem is not that these good people aren’t working or working hard. The problem is that Walmart and so many other employers want to keep every damn dime, nickel, and penny. Who makes up for their miserliness? We do when our taxes pay for supplemental rent, food vouchers, and health care. We help Walmart keep its employees housed, fed, and healthy. That’s corporate welfare.
In Common Dreams, Adbusters aims its Buy Nothing Day cannon at Walmart and blows apart a company whose sole mission seems to be profit based on exploitation of workers (let’s not forget our Chinese brothers and sisters that do so much to keep the Walton Family so rich). Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich adds to a historical viewpoint to this critique. He also points out that a 1% increase in prices at retailers like Walmart would lift 700,000 people out of poverty. But that would not be fair to “Job Creators” like the Waltons. I guess freedom requires poverty and misery.
I don’t shop at Walmart or Sam’s Club or Target. I try to buy local and find new ways to shop for American-made products. Our choices can bring real freedom to many people who live poor lives so a few can be rich beyond reason or morality.