Wednesday, June 3, 2015

LABOR DAY TRIBUTE: Thank You For Your Service

I have seen their patience, gentleness and love many times. Pay: $8.00 per hour.
    I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your service.
    Not our soldiers, for a change, but the other Americans who serve us -- unheralded -- every day, everywhere, in so many ways, and who never even come close to being middle class, despite their hard work and dedication. Happy Labor Day, dear laborers.

Have a nice day!
      With this “holiday” as the occasion, I am thanking the tens of millions of people who show up dutifully, day after day, year after year, to do jobs that are some combination of mind-numbing, spirit-killing, dangerous, exhausting, demeaning, stressful, uncomfortable, dead-end and low status. They work harder than many of us and get paid less than most of us. I honor them, and on their behalf, I am outraged. The way we treat them is a terrible injustice. 
    It has been documented over and over again that the jobs that are the least pleasant and/or most dangerous generally have the lowest pay.
In the trenches, working at least as hard as we do.
    These are the jobs that have few if any benefits, little if any paid sick leave or vacation time and poorly enforced overtime regulations. They provide no job security and no assistance in saving for retirement. They are the jobs in which people are often treated with distrust and disrespect, made to wear whatever getup fosters their employer's desired image, forced to punch in and out at a time clock (while the rest of us come and go as we please). They are the ones where employees can be fired without severance, without notice, without a little farewell party. They are cogs, and they can feel it. They might as well have numbers instead of names. 
    "Inequality Hollows Out the Soul," a compelling New York Times essay argues ( "Our tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth invokes deep psychological responses, feelings of dominance and subordination, superiority and inferiority. This affects the way we see and treat one also damages the individual psyche," the authors write. I agree completely. It is heartbreaking.
Have a nice life!
    These "unequal" people are everywhere, but most of us barely notice them. They man the cash registers; build roads, homes and everything else; replace your broken water line; serve your latte or your meal; clean the public restrooms (how many toilets a day would you scrub for poverty wages?) and the offices, maintain the landscape, and do their assigned tasks thousands of times a day in the production line. 
Have a nice doctor for your eyes, neck and carpal tunnel!
    They check you in at the hospital or clinic, asking the same questions and requesting the same documentation year after year. They harvest your food in the hot sun and prepare it in the hot kitchen. They slaughter your meat in noisy, dangerous, smelly facilities. They clean your house and tend your babies. They unclog your toilet and steam your carpets. They attempt to soothe your frustration at the airport. They gently lift and precisely position one breast after another into the mammogram machine, thousands of times a year.
    They do this in a culture that doesn’t applaud those who wait tables or flip burgers or fix cars. They are, to a large degree, regarded as “losers.”
Have a nice daycare, because it will be taking most of your pay.
    Some of them are in cubicles, making one stressful cold call after another (with a quota hanging over their heads). Some of them show up at the convenience store every day (or every night) to endure hour after hour of grinding tedium, punctuated by the occasional armed robbery. There are those poor guys standing around in R.C. Willey’s vast and claustrophobic furniture store hoping to god that they can induce somebody to buy something today. There are the customer-service people throughout the economy who are required to absorb and defuse one burst of rage and aggravation after another. They are the garment workers and poultry processors and coal miners whose workplace ambiance is reminiscent of the 1940s.
Those lazy bums!
    I don’t get out much, but when I do, I notice the jobs that people are having to do to pay the rent and keep food on the table. It requires a strength of character and an ability to cope that I definitely don’t have. I am in awe of these people who do so much and get so little in return. It wouldn’t be worth it to me -- this “living for the weekend” life.
    I notice that they are invisible to most people, and I notice that they seem to feel invisible. I am astonished not just that all these people keep on keeping on, but also that they display so much dignity, forbearance and good nature in the process. 
If they can't get a better job than this, it's their own damn fault!
They humble me. I have huge respect for them. And I feel personally compromised to have been the beneficiary of an economic system that is so heinously unfair to so many, depriving them of the pay, the esteem and the opportunities they deserve.
    It is those people who keep the world up and running: picking up the garbage, plowing the streets, fixing the power outages, cleaning up the toxic spills.
    Meanwhile those of us in our cozy office suites are pushing paper, attending meetings, having a blast devising slogans and strategies that will get people to buy more stuff, and wasting lots of time surfing the Web and keeping our social and family lives humming along via our precious tech gadgets.
   I have quite a few nightmare scenarios that keep me feeling chronically haunted. One of them is that some day I will be forced to be a grocery checker or a waitress.
I wouldn't last even one shift. Just watching them exhausts me.
      I think I am a reasonably versatile, adaptable person, but I absolutely could not do those jobs. I am too stupid, too weak, too easily confused, too impatient and – to be honest – too egotistical to tolerate such a subservient role.
     People don't give a  damn who you are when you're in these lowly positions. I have heard so many people over the years complain about waitresses and waiters who introduce themselves to their customers. 
    "I'm not here to be their friend -- I just want some food," these fools say. 
    If you're not willing to deal with people as PEOPLE, whatever job they're doing, just stay home.
    I lack the physical, intellectual and emotional resources to do those "invisible loser" jobs. Yet my income has probably been at least triple or quadruple what theirs is, plus several thousand dollars a year in benefits.
    It is not fair.
You made your bed -- now drown in it.
    I have seen clips of a TV program called “Undercover Boss.”
    Apparently, one CEO after another is amazed and moved to learn that his lowliest employees -- often in cities and towns far away from the gleaming, cushy executive suite -- are cheerful, diligent, dedicated, principled people who (he finally realizes) are the heart and soul of his precious enterprise. He never dreamed that these losers in such crap jobs would be such great, solid people. And they aren’t stupid at all!
She works hard for the money (so hard for it, honey), will they ever treat her right?
    We keep learning this over and over again. The CEOs claim to be profoundly moved. So how about moving profoundly to give your employees a decent income, you ass? That’s where it gets too complicated for the CEO to proceed. Things would cost more, etc., it’s complicated.
    So let them cost more, if that’s what it takes to pay these people properly.
    We need a new labor movement.
    A black friend from Los Angeles once complained to me, "The first thing white people ask when they meet you is 'What do you do?'" 
    He and I both had interesting careers, so it wasn’t a problem for us personally, but it made me confront for the first time the obvious fact that most people do not have jobs that fascinate or impress others. So I can imagine that a whole lot of white people, as well as African-Americans, aren’t thrilled by the question: What do you do?
In so many jobs, no one even acknowledges that you're there.
    Why is that by far the most common “first question” in our culture? If you are a neurosurgeon or an astronaut, you probably can’t wait for someone to ask, but for most people, there is little pride or pleasure in answering. What does it matter how they earn their living? That isn’t what defines them as human beings. It says nothing about who they are, what they care about, who they love, what values they hold dear and what pleasures enrich and energize their lives. 
    I hadn't thought about it until my friend brought it up, but I've been very conscious of it ever since. It's made me refrain from asking the question, although I always want to.
    I am as curious as anyone else about what someone does for a living.
    But doesn't it reflect an absurdly narrow concept of what another human being "is"? (Or does it depend on what your definition of "is" is?)
Make it quick, get it right, and don't tell us your name because we don't care!
   On a recent National Public Radio call-in program, which has a live audience, a caller from Oregon was asked (as the first question), “And what do you do out there in Bremerton?” The person’s reply was something like, “I stock shelves on the night shift at Costco.”
    There was a palpable hush of uneasiness and embarrassment in the auditorium, and then the host finally perked back up and said something like, “Well, it must be nice and quiet at that time!”
    Think what it must be like to have your response to “What do you do?” be a conversation-stopper.
He may not get paid much, but working in the great outdoors is priceless.
    Let’s come up with some new opening lines that reflect an interest in the whole person. We need a paradigm shift in how we get to know others and how we value different kinds of work.
   It has been decades since I wrote articles for The Nation magazine and other publications about the concept of “a good day’s pay for a good day’s work.”
    My premise was that there should be no such thing as “the working poor.” I argued that anyone who shows up and does his assigned tasks in a conscientious way deserves an income that provides for a proud, comfortable and secure life (including a home, medical care and a retirement plan, for starters). That’s the way it used to be. The whole "middle-class" thing -- remember? We have strayed way, way off course.
If he wants a better life, he should just shit or get off the pot.
    Long before our country had the disgraceful gap between rich and poor that we have today, I maintained that those of us who have interesting, creative, prestigious jobs -- whether in business or government -- should earn somewhat less, so that those who endure tedious and unrewarding work would at least have the consolation of a decent income. It's basic fairness.
    I worked with plaintiffs on a federal lawsuit in Denver that attempted to establish the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value.” We documented how capricious, racist and sexist the existing compensation system is, and demonstrated how the use of “job-worth analysis” could help us structure our pay scales in a fairer and more humane way.
No sick leave, no paid vacation, no health insurance.
    I recently saw a doctor at the University Health Sciences Center. I was so impressed by the skill, knowledge, thoroughness, responsiveness and sensitive “bedside manner” of his assistant that I Googled him to learn more about him. All that I found was an entry in the state’s database, which provides salary information for all its employees, and discovered that he earns only $20,000 a year. The doctor, on the other hand -- who did have “most” of the positive attributes of his assistant -- earns close to a million dollars, which doesn’t even include his income from private patients or research.
He completed rigorous training and apprenticeship for an "exciting, rewarding career."
     I agree that doctors should make more than their assistants, and CEOs should make more than their employees -- whether those workers are roustabouts, factory workers or white-collar staffers. But the pay gap should be nowhere near 50 times as much, as it was with the medical assistant, or 400 times more, as it is in many corporate situations. That million-dollar-a-year doctor should have the decency to give his assistant a $50,000 a year bonus. The assistant deserves it. The doctor wouldn’t miss it.
Just 10,000 more days of this and he will retire, if he can afford to.
     It is a matter of both worth and equity. The higher-ups are not WORTH that much more, by any objective criteria, and it is NOT FAIR for their subordinates, who work with as much diligence and good faith as their “superiors,” to be so undervalued.
    This obscene gap is a rather new phenomenon. The pay disparity, up until the mid-1970s, was generally quite reasonable. That was before “the rich get richer” dynamic really took off and grew exponentially and became absolutely grotesque and began its heartless erosion of the middle class.    
Mindless work doesn't mean workers are mindless.
    There are a lot of people, not all of them right-wingers by any means, who blame the people in low-wage jobs for their plight. Those stupid people made stupid choices, the uppity types declare. They were lazy. They got drunk and did drugs while the rest of us did our homework and piled up degrees and networked and polished our resumes. 
They get paid to exercise -- that's a dream job!
    They didn’t have enough brains to think ahead. They didn’t have enough ambition and discipline to get a decent education. They don’t have enough “class” to function in the higher echelons, where a genetically superior breed of attractive, stylish, well-spoken beings reigns.
   This is a very tiresome mythology that I was also raised to believe. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault. People who work hard and play by the rules on our fabled “level playing field” are successful. The poor are lazy leeches who want everything handed to them. They love to game the system. They’ll do anything to avoid getting up off their fat asses.
It's not just a job -- it's an adventure.
    For the most part, this scenario is pure crap. It’s a convenient lie for we who live in comfort to tell ourselves, just like everyone loved the “welfare queen” myth about the fat black lady who pulls up in her Cadillac to collect her welfare check. 
A nice little armed robbery would punctuate the tedium and give her 15 seconds of fame.
    How we love these anecdotes, which enable us to dismiss the inequities in our system and continue to wallow in all of our shiny and snuggly “things.” The inconvenient truth is that the system is perverse and heartless to its core.
    I didn’t come to this realization until I moved to New York, where – unlike in my economically segregated home-town life – I lived and worked among poor people. It took barely a few days to demolish every stereotype and LIE I had been told about who gets what and why. I basically had an “Undercover Boss” experience: They’re not stupid! They’re not lazy! Most of them had a hell of a lot more character than I did.
    We are living in a self-serving dream world, and we have no desire to be awakened.
Food is expensive. Agricultural workers are not. Why is that?
    Over the years, I have gradually come to realize that I deserve little of the credit for whatever success I may have achieved. Conversely, I believe that those who are on the “lower rungs” of society should not, for the most part, be blamed.
    I was always a hotshot, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was bred to be a hotshot. When I smirked my way through elementary school, it didn’t occur to me how much of an advantage -- a real jump start -- I’d had, thanks to my parents. They began teaching me to read when I was three or four years old. 
     We had books everywhere, including three sets of encyclopedias and beautiful books on the greatest art in history, and my dad took us to the library every Saturday morning to check out a new stack of books and magazines.
They don't mind the work. Anyone would mind the pay.
    My parents taught me, in a concerted way, to love learning. That was extremely valuable to me, and it put me way ahead of most kids from the start.
    The pecking order was in place long before we played any role in the paths our lives would take.
Chronic exposure to some of the most toxic substances known to man. Pay: $12 per hour.
     In elementary school, it seemed quite clear who was attractive and who was not; who was well-nourished and who was not; who came from a prosperous, fashionable family, and who did not; who had been nurtured, and lived in an enriched, encouraging environment -- and who had not.
They should be grateful that the blood-and-shit part was done elsewhere.
     We snickered about kids who had ugly clothes and stringy hair, kids who were fat, kids who were "greasers" and bit their nails -- you know, the ones who were so clearly (even then) headed for Trade Tech or reform school. I am absolutely sickened to imagine how they must have felt. 
    The larger point is that the "classless society" we were told was so emblematic of America -- in  contrast to other countries, such as Britain or India -- was a lie even then. 
    We do have classes, and they represent a significant obstacle to those who begin life at the back of the pack. But our culture has little sympathy for those with disadvantages,  dismissively exhorting them to "just work harder."
    I was treated very well in school. I was so delighted by all the attention I was getting that I didn’t notice -- or even realize until decades later -- how brutal the system was to other kids. I was blind to it even in college.
It's terrible work, dealing with seething people. The pay is terrible, too.
    Remember the gold stars that were affixed to your forehead or your paper when you did an outstanding job? I loved those gold stars. What happened to the spirit of those children who never got one?
    Did your teachers post scores and grades, ranking from the best to the worst, on the bulletin board for all to see? Mine did, and I always got a surge of satisfaction from being at the top. It never occurred to me to care about the feelings of those who were consistently just “average” or consistently at rock bottom.
    When your teachers handed back the papers or book reports you had written, did they announce, “Excellent work, as usual,” in front of everyone, or “This just won’t do. It’s the worst one of all”?
Break time, no break room included.
    Did they have you line up, from top student to the bottom, to walk to the auditorium?
    It never occurred to me that this was incredibly barbaric. If I’d had any empathy, I would have objected. I would have said that my fellow students were being pointlessly and cruelly stigmatized. I would have said that humiliation damages people, and that the teacher should be searching for the strengths in every student, not broadcasting their weaknesses.
    In college, I was sitting with some anti-war friends one day, and we were talking about the pros and cons of capitalism.
    I said, “I love competition.”
    I will never forget Laury Hammel’s response: “Of course you do. You always win.”
    That was a life-changing moment for me, more than 40 years ago. (Since then, Laury has lived an extraordinary life, devoted to social justice.) 
Thank you, Laury, for forcing me to confront the truth.
    What he said that day put me on the path of rethinking every aspect of my achievements and my relative “worth.” It made me realize how insensitive and lacking in compassion I had been up to then. And it made me see that most of the world around me was equally insensitive and lacking in compassion.
All they have to do is go to college. Then they can come back down.
    When I was in New York, I worked for a couple of years with a large number of prison inmates and newly released convicts. Over and over again, I heard the line: “My mama always told me I’d never amount to anything.” They were referred to a stupid and “pathetic” and "no good" over and over again, by single mothers who’d probably been told the same thing.
    "Get your sorry ass out of here!"
    My parents always told me that I could do and be anything I wanted to, and that they would help me pursue my interests in any way they could.
    Just think of the massive gap -- from the “git go” as my prison people would put it -- between someone who had my launch into the world and those who were repeatedly assured that there was no point in even trying.
The rewards of making glass sparkle are compensation enough.
     When we were young, we were taught that it is right and proper to share.
    We need to revisit that fundamental ethic and apply it to our economy. There’s plenty of money -- and plenty enough to go around. 
    We should start by quadrupling the minimum wage.
    We should also start by sharing the pain when there are layoffs and high unemployment. It is our duty as workers-in-arms to decrease our hours so our fellow employees can continue earning an income. We know you have a family and a mortgage. They do too. Man up and do the right thing.
    In the meantime, our system is abusive, oppressive and grossly immoral. A little class warfare might do us some good. I believe we should demand a top-to-bottom restructuring in how people are compensated. Until we do, we're all complicit in this cruel injustice.
    A happy Labor Day it’s not.

England had the right idea: It's time for class warfare.
The unrest in Britain is a Cautionary Tale for U.S.

Class Warfare has begun