The Right to Work and the Shameful Devaluation of American Labor

In a world hopelessly committed to selfie sticks, endless cat videos, and Instagram posts memorializing the infernal ubiquity of avocado toast and overpriced mimosas, there are never enough thoughts and heartfelt sentiments for the American worker. Purchasing power has barely budged in forty years. There are endless statistics showing a pernicious inequality. This demands our swift correction. But we are very far away from the days in which the image of Sally Field boldly holding a UNION cardboard sign above her head represented a cultural symbol of inclusive American pride.

Now, thanks to the unfathomable hubris of a petulant President who cleaves to a government shutdown with all the grace and humanity of a sociopathic schoolboy holding a magnifying glass to a quivering fly, the American worker faces needless ruin and further humiliation as an estimated 800,000 federal workers have been asked to toil without a paycheck. This is, in short, a national disgrace: the kind of callous development that people used to riot in the streets over. In a prosperous nation such as ours, there is simply no excuse to settle for this indifference and to let anyone suffer.

Sure, there have been gestures – such as the seven restaurants in Phoenix offering free food to furloughed federal workers and the numerous companies in San Antonio that have gallantly stepped up to the plate. But this munificence, as noble and as considerate as it may be, doesn’t go nearly far enough in recognizing that a steady gig (rather than a rapacious gig economy) should be a basic American right and that the American worker must be granted an easy and human respect.

There are unseen stories of federal workers, many of them living paycheck to paycheck, who have been forced to take on loans to pay their bills. In some cases, workers may be lucky enough to land a zero interst loan from a credit union. But what of those who must approach predatory payday lenders? What of callous property managers in Arkansas who do not possess a shred of compassion for those facing hard times? And what of the loss of dignity to any American who is ordered to show up for a shift but who is denied the right of being promptly compensated?

The devaluation of American labor extends far beyond all this: it can be seen in the erosion of union power over the last four decades, the underreported fight for fifteen, and the ways in which “liberal” social media mobs call for perceived transgressors to lose their livelihoods. The noblesse oblige once granted to every American worker irrespective of who she was or where she worked has been replaced by a shameful notion that anyone who remains unemployed or underemployed should be able to fend for herself. And when the worker is this devalued, how then can she be inspired to fight on behalf of all Americans? 133 years after seven people died in Milwaukee to stand up for the eight hour day and in which the Haymarket Affair aroused national sympathy for the worker, we now find ourselves living in a nation in which such valor and courage is not only completely forgotten but entirely unfathomable.

On January 11, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opted to sidestep Congress and deliver his State of the Union directly to the people in the form of a Fireside Chat. In this famous speech, Roosevelt called for “a Second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.”

Roosevelt insisted that the first and foremost duty of this new pledge was “the right to a useful and reumnerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.”

In the decades since these more progressive times, Democrats have ignobly shirked their duties in standing up for the American worker and have lacked the smooth acumen to speak common language. Blue collar workers fled to a megalomaniac because they were ignored and abandoned by a party that refused to understand them and believed that it knew best. And this needlessly condescending and contradictory approach, perhaps best epitomized by Bill Clinton heartlessly signing the 1996 Welfare Reform Act into law, has rightfully caused the Democrats to suffer. A guarantee of full employment was once a cornerstone of the Democratic Party, but a 2013 analysis from The Daily Kos revealed that no Democratic presidential contender has stood up for this right since. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders picked up on this while Hillary Clinton (you will not find a right to work guarantee on her position page) could not ardently commit to this honorable tradition, leaving the idea of guaranteed employment behind with other bedrock principles. The last prominent display of consolidated demoracy was probably Mario Cuomo’s eloquent speech at the 1984 Democratic convention, in which he declared that the heart of liberal constituency was:

the middle class, the people not rich enough to be worry-free, but not poor enough to be on welfare; the middle class — those people who work for a living because they have to, not because some psychiatrist told them it was a convenient way to fill the interval between birth and eternity. White collar and blue collar. Young professionals. Men and women in small business desperate for the capital and contracts that they need to prove their worth.

Last year, The Nation’s Ady Barkan called for progressives to adopt a good jobs guarantee, pointing out how the Service Employees International Union played hardball with Democratic candidates. The SEIU declared that it would not endorse any Democratic presidential candidate unless it made universal healthcare part of her platform. John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton were all forced to adopt this position. And within two years, the Affordable Care Act was written into law.

Progressive groups can and must do this again, especially as new candidates enter the 2020 presidential race. It is one thing for doddering dinosaurs like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to stand like stiffs and offer hollow platitudes before the American public. (Incidentally, the word “job” was never mentioned once in their rebuttal to Trump’s racist Oval Office address on January 8, 2019.) It is quite another thing to be pro-active like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who led a group to track down the missing Mitch McConnell, demanding a vote to end the shutdown. Ocasio-Cortez, despite being much younger, is apparently more “old school” than the old dogs.

The Casual Villainy of Feel-Good Neoliberal Bullshit

A few nights ago, a very kind friend took me to a private screening of a film about homelessness, under the presumed theory that my own homeless experience from four years before might be of help to the filmmaker. This filmmaker, who I should point out was an extremely tall and quietly affable man (affable, at least, to anyone who he detected was very much like himself!), believed, like many myopic neoliberals, that he was doing the right thing with his film. But he wasn’t. He was, in fact, contributing dangerously and cruelly to a repulsive dehumanizing myth that has become as seductive as catnip to most of the American population.

The film played. The affluent crowd that gathered in the basement of this tony Manhattan restaurant cheered as some talking head boasted about delivering forty pairs of socks to the homeless. The socks, said this starry-eyed subject, were a way to give the homeless an identity. But I knew damn well that what these people really needed, as I once so desperately begged for, was food, a shelter that wasn’t committed to daily debasement and that actually did something to protect residents from random stabbings, and a stable job that permitted someone who had nothing to save enough resources for first and last month’s rent. This preposterous subject also bragged on film about taking homeless people to a comedy show to cheer them up. Never mind that this is a risible impossibility, considering that shelters impose a draconian curfew each night, usually sometime between 9 PM and 10 PM, that you must hit. If you don’t make this curfew, for which you must factor in a lengthy line in which security guards pat you down and tear through what little you have, you will lose your bed and have all your possessions, meager as they are, thrown into a huge plastic bag and tossed into the street. (This happened to me. And I was forced to haul a very heavy bag with fragile lining, half of what I had damaged and dingy, on a subway, where I could feel the eyes of every commuter looking the other direction.)

I watched as a shoeshine man on-screen bought into the lazy, drug-addled homeless stereotype who never seeks out work (oh, but they do, even when they have a substance abuse problem!). It was a trope no different from the way Reagan had used Linda Taylor, an incredibly rare and unlikely figure hardly representative of homelessness, to establish his staunch conservatism and needlessly demonize the welfare system in 1976. And I was shaking with indignation as the filmmaker, who appeared himself as the film’s first talking head in a bona-fide act of artistic narcissism, bragged about how he had talked to a homeless person, believing her sad face to be an act. He refused to acknowledge her real pain and true fear as he painted himself as a champion of the underprivileged. I looked to my right and I witnessed the filmmaker himself sitting in his chair, responding to his repugnant untruths and counterfactual bromides by bobbing his head up and down to every cinematic cadence he had manufactured.

The film I saw, or at least what I mostly saw (because I bolted after about thirty minutes of this: I was so enraged after one “well-meaning” audience member laughed at a homeless stereotype and chuckled over the film’s bootstraps bullshit, which presented poverty as a “choice,” an emphasis that greatly overshadowed, oh say, examining the details of a rigged system or humanizing the people who are often locked into a nigh inescapable abyss and who are rendered invisible simply because they lost their jobs at a bad time or suffered any number of setbacks that could happen to anyone (hell, it happened to me!), and because this was a “celebration” for the filmmaker and I knew that if I stuck around, I would have gone out of my way to fight fiercely with ruthlessly truthful invective and I am really trying to live a more peaceful life and let things go more — but goddammit you see puffed up privilege like this and it’s not easy!), angered me beyond belief. It was a superficial glimpse of what at least half a million people in this nation go through (and this number is rising): an absolute lie that refused to address vile welfare-to-work realities, the shameful bureaucracy of standing in line for a day arguing to some underpaid heartless stooge why you should get a mere $150 each month to eat (and under Trump, these already svelte and insufficient benefits are in danger of being cut further), the violent and depressing culture within homeless shelters that causes so many to give up and that causes smart people (and let me assure you that there are many smart people who are homeless) to throw in the towel when they shouldn’t have to.

As many have argued (including Thomas Frank, whom I interviewed about this significant problem here), the Democratic Party has completely divorced itself from advocating for working people and those who need our help. The Democrats haven’t seriously championed for universal aid since Mario Cuomo’s inspiring keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When principled progressives stand against this milquetoast centrism, they are — as this incredible episode of This American Life recently revealed — urged to push the reasons why they are running into the middle if they want access to funds that will help them win elections. And when candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually stand for something and beat out long-time incumbents in a primary, they are, as the disheartening replies to this tweet reveal, declared “a piece of work” and “arrogant” by middle-of-the-road cowards who have never known a day without a hot meal and who refuse to address deeply pernicious realities that people actually live. These weak-kneed and priggish pilgarlics still drop dollars with their colicky hands into the room rental till for their Why Isn’t Hillary President? support groups. They are more interested in wrapping themselves in warm comforting blankets rather than surrendering their bedding to someone sleeping on the streets. They are so enamored and ensnared by this ugly and unsound marriage between capitalism and humanism that they adamantly refuse to listen to the very people they’ve pledged to cure. They ignore any fresh new voice who has the steel to launch a political campaign based on the truth. Their shaky tenure is out of sync with the robust reform we need right now to address our national ills.

I now believe neoliberalism to be just as much of an evil cancer as Trumpism. It needs to be fought hard. Because any ideology that prioritizes supremacy (and neoliberals can be a smug and oh so certain bunch) is a call to dehumanize others.

So how did the film screening conclude? Well, I apologized to my friend, told her that I couldn’t take the film anymore and that I knew this was triggering deep rage in me because it denied and invalidated the horrors that I personally experienced and that I had somehow found the resilience and strength to overcome. I took my leave, tipped the bartender far more than these moneyed types did, and saw that the filmmaker was watching me. What? A man fleeing his unquestionable genius? Why yes, you imperious insensitive clueless dope! So I went up to him and said, “My name is Ed Champion. I was homeless four years ago and your film is a terrible lie. You should be ashamed of yourself.” True to form, he went back to cheering on his own film, paying me no heed whatsoever.