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.

Unemployment (Follow Your Ears #7)

Play

The national unemployment rate continues to hover just under 8%. It’s been like this for about a year. That’s higher than the 1991 recession. And the unemployment numbers are starting to match the recession of the early 1980s, just before unemployment hit over 10% in 1982. This program looks into whether or not the jobs are really coming back. Are we avoiding a serious problem that we don’t have the courage to stare in the face? To what degree are we repeating history? We meet a man who motivates the unemployed in library basements, get experts to respond to Chairman Bernanke’s recent claims that unemployment will fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015, discuss the finer points of Beveridge curves with economics professor William Dickens, chat about how the last four decades of labor developments have contributed to the unemployment crisis with Down the Up Escalator author Barbara Garson, discover a company that protected the unemployed against discrimination with the National Employment Law Project’s Mitchell Hirsch, and learn about discrimination and how local labor policy reveals national labor policy with Dr. Michelle Holder of the Community Service Society of New York.


7a

I Really Want This Job

Barry Cohen is a well-dressed man with impressive cheekbones and an indefatigable smile. He reminds me of some 20th century titan who wants you to sign on the dotted line for a set of steak knives. On hot summer nights, he can be found in the basements of public libraries addressing the unemployed on how to find and get the jobs they really want. We talk with Barry and the people who look for confidence and guidance in his words. It turns out that Barry is working from an unexpected vicarious place. (Beginning to 9:40)


7b

Curves and Predictions

Last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told reporters that we were at the beginning of the end. He predicted that unemployment would fall between 5.8 and 6.2% by 2015. But William Dickens, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Northeastern University, feels that Bernanke is being overly optimistic. He also demystifies Beveridge curves for us and elucidates a policy paper he co-authored with Rand Ghayad that caused at least journalist to freak out in the final moments of 2012. (9:40 to 18:37)


7c

Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Garson, author of Down the Up Escalator, offers a more sociological view of the unemployment problem. She tells us that it’s not so much the recession that reveals the causes of unemployment, but the American worker’s dwindling prospects over the past four decades. We discuss the Pink Slip Club, the “new normal” of unemployment, and consider how the unemployed can contribute to society as they pine for nonexistent jobs. (18:37 to 29:10)


7d

Discrimination

It’s difficult to feel inspired and real when the deck is stacked against you. One little discussed truth about being unemployed is the rampant discrimination against job seekers who are not presently employed. The situation is so bad that New York City was forced to pass Introduction 814, a groundbreaking piece of local legislation that made it illegal under the human rights law for an employer to base a hiring decision on an applicant’s unemployment. We speak with Mitchell Hirsch, the Web and Campaign Associate at the National Employment Law Project, to get a handle on just how bad discrimination against the unemployed remains. It turns out that Introduction 814 doesn’t go far enough. We also meet Dr. Michelle Holder, Senior Labor Market Analyst at the Community Service Society of New York, to determine why New York is a good microcosm for American unemployment. The conversation reveals how local policy reflects national policy and gets into problems with the Georgia Works program and “business-friendly” politicians. (29:10 to end)


Loops for this program were provided by BlackNebula, danke, djmfl, drmistersir, EOS, JorgeDanielRamirez, kristijann, KRP92, MaMaGBeats, Megapaul, morpheusd, and ShortBusMusic. Follow Your Ears Theme (licensed) by Mark Allaway.

Follow Your Ears #7: Unemployment (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

The Bat Segundo Show: Marjorie Rosen

Marjorie Rosen recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #311.

Marjorie Rosen is most recently the author of Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town Into an International Community.

segundo311

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Kicked out of bed.

Author: Marjorie Rosen

Subjects Discussed: The white and non-Hispanic white majority in Bentonville, Arkansas, numerous houses of worship, multiculturalism, the largest population of Marshall Island immigrants in the United States, work for unskilled laborers, exploitation at Tyson and Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart’s $319 billion annual profit and its failure to offer proper healthcare, sentiments from former Bentonville mayor Terry Black Coberly, whether or not Wal-Mart is good for Bentonville, The Whistler Group, Wal-Mart, Christian-based merchandise, and staying in denial about being a “Christian company,” mandatory Saturday morning meetings, “diversity groups,” the conflict between Saturday morning meetings and shabbat, St. Paul Wal-Mart worker Abdi Abdi fired for praying on work breaks, the difficulties of integrating with a white community, trying to get Wal-Mart middle managers to disclose salaries, relative salaries and Bentonville’s relative economy, Bentonville housing, the abuses of the Bentonville and the Rogers Police Departments, the culture of fear spawned by Section 287(g), Rogers Mayor Steve Womack’s racist sentiments, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and white privilege, and the reasonable unification of culture.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

marjorierosenCorrespondent: Ajaydev Naliur said to you that the most difficult part of integrating into the larger white community was “not being able to socialize with them like we do with the Indian families. The people at work never say, ‘A.J., come to my house for dinner, come to my home.'” Now if Naliur has only a professional relationship with the Americans and he fears bringing Indian food even to the Walmart food day potlucks, then surely there’s a multiculturalism problem here. And I’m curious about why there’s this lack of integration.

Rosen: No, it’s interesting that you choose A.J. I think it was his problem.

Correspondent: Yeah?

Rosen: Yeah. Because he was so timid about everything. About sharing Indian food. You know, there are Mexican restaurants. There are Chinese restaurants. There are all sorts of restaurants in the area now. Not an Indian restaurant yet. But he was so timid about it. And yet there were other Indian families. Like the Kulkarnis, who were not at all. Who said to me, “Many American friends, we invite them to dinner.” And I kept wishing they’d invite me for dinner. You know, because I love Indian food.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Rosen: But when push came to shove, A.J. said that he was hesitant to embrace American values. Mostly because of his daughters. He has two teenage daughters. And he was very, very afraid that they would become too Americanized. And then he would lose control of them, in terms of boyfriends and in terms of setting up arranged marriages. And it’s definitely in the picture for him. And he wants to keep his girls under his wing.

Correspondent: But A.J. likewise wants to hold onto his job. And maybe the timidity comes from the fact that if he brings in the Indian food, by his standpoint, he could risk raising ire and possibly having people make fun of him. Or, I suppose, putting a red flag on the cultural divide. So is it really fair point to A.J. and say, “Hey, it’s your problem.” Because he is, in fact, the guy who is bringing sodas and pretzels and potato chips and the like. Basically conforming to American society.

Rosen: He said it was his problem.

Correspondent: He said it was his problem?

Rosen: He said it was his problem when I spoke to him about it. I said, “Gosh, people love to share.” Especially in terms of food. People are very open to that kind of thing. He said it was his problem and his timidity. It’s funny. His wife, it’s been harder for her because it’s taken her a longer time to learn English. Now that she’s learning English, she works at a day care center. She’s having a great time going to weddings of friends without him. Because she’s much more willing to socialize with Americans somehow. Now that she’s learned English, it’s easier for her.

Correspondent: Well, if she’s the social butterfly, has she brought Americans to her place? Or anything like that?

Rosen: Not yet. She’s still fairly submissive. A fairly submissive wife. On and off for the first two years that I spoke with them, I would visit them when I’d come into town. And I’d ask what he thought about something. And then I’d ask what she thought. And she’d say, with no irony, “I think what he thinks.”

Correspondent: Interesting.

Rosen: But now that she’s learning English, and she’s more comfortable in her own community and basically in her own skin, I really have detected a change in her. It’s really lovely to see that.

Correspondent: By comfortable in her own skin, do you mean as she’s learned English? What do you mean by that?

Rosen: As she’s learned English. She’s been able to take a job and hold a job by herself. And I think that’s given her a little bit of freedom. Not, I would say, a lot. But a little bit of freedom.

Correspondent: Freedom to further integrate with American culture?

Rosen: Yes.

Correspondent: Or…because it seems to me that we’re getting a one way signal here. I mean, shouldn’t multiculturalism work where everybody integrates together? And everybody goes, “Hey, Indian food. Hey, American food,” and that kind of thing?

Rosen: Well, I think it’s nice that she has American friends from the day care center where she works who invite her to their wedding. Which entails a whole day of traveling and celebrating. I mean, to me, that’s a gesture in a community that maybe ten years ago would not have made that gesture. And she would have been too timid to go without him.

BSS #311: Marjorie Rosen (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Play