In May 2001, American author and sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich published Nickel and Dimed. In this deeply provocative ethnography, Ehrenreich attempts to earn a living wage at a variety of service sector jobs in one month intervals, from Wal-Mart associate, waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, and nursing-home aide. All of these positions paid minimum wage and, therefore, should have provided the author with a sustainable income. What she found was a series of jobs that were undervalued, demanding, emotionally straining, and not paying livable wages, in spite of the fact that the wages met state-sanctioned wage standards. Ehrenreich was not once able to sustain herself on these positions and had to often sacrifice food, shelter, transportation, and/or sleep.
Throughout Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich—who very openly points to the privilege she claims as an author who can adopt these roles on a temporary basis—compassionately documents the daily indignities and sacrifices that befall the working poor. We observe that to be poor is to be invisible, or the source of derision and contempt. In a capitalist society founded on aspiration and ‘self-improvement’ through consumption and accumulation, to be poor is to be in possession of some deep-rooted character flaw. Given that encouragement to just ‘work harder’ is not effective, Ehrenreich is right to highlight that “the problem goes deeper and begins to cut into that web of expectations that make up the social contract…No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”
In 2013, the situation is even worse and workers have had enough. Beginning last Thursday, August 29th, fast-food workers, part of a coalition of unions, campaign groups, clergy and community members, staged strikes at McDonald’s and Burger King in sixty US cities. Part of a nearly year-long campaign, these labour actions are raising awareness that service with a smile comes at a very real cost to workers. Alongside fast-food workers, it’s expected that retail staff from chain stores owned by Macy’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp, and Dollar Tree Inc. would join the strikes. Workers are striking to have pay increased from $15/hour, up from $7.25 which is the current minimum wage in the US. (American wages have a federally sanctioned minimum but might change from state-to-state, whereas in Canada it’s a provincial issue).
In case you think this demand is drastic, keep in mind that McDonald’s profits were $5.47 billion in 2012.
The rebuttals to these well-organized, much-needed actions are varied, but predictable: work hard and you’ll rise through the ranks; fast-food and service create ‘good jobs’; and of course, if these strikes don’t stop, we’ll put a robot in your place. Let me respond by saying: 1) Meritocracy is a myth. If working hard was the measure of success, our current class system would be drastically restructured. 2) Numerous jobs are not good jobs if workers do not have benefits, don’t work in safe conditions, have no course for grievances, and can not pay for housing for themselves and their families. 3) Raising prices and cutting jobs because of labour demands is a means to keep workers from voicing dissent and organizing collectively. Moreover, reported threats to workers who attempt to organize are illegal. The right to collectively mobilize and strike is a right we all share, regardless of what management tells us.
The National Retail Federation responded to the strikes with this statement: “[T]he labour movement (has) abdicated their role in an honest and rational discussion about the American workforce.”
Ummm…when has that ever been the role of the labour movement? The labour movement stands up for labour; it’s not a homogenous body that placates rabble rousing workers. In an effort to appropriate the language of the National Retail Federation, know what’s honest and rational? Using a national campaign to point out the simple, eloquent truth that $7.25/hour (which amounts to about $10,000 annually) is not a livable wage anywhere, let alone some of the most expensive metropolises in the world, the very places where the fast-food sector is experiencing the most rapid growth. Discussion has been attempted. This failed. The next, rational step is to organize a labour stoppage, otherwise known as a strike, to raise awareness about the ways in which this facet of labour is under-valued and pressure management to rectify this situation. In fact, a strike like the one executed by fast-food workers in America is the height of reason and will hopefully catalyze the federal government to raise minimum wage standards and working conditions within the fast-food and retail sectors. Another helpful step? Upper-level management could take a pay cut.
The National Retail Federation then attempted to dismiss the strikes as “theatre orchestrated by organised labour.” Actually, I agree with the Federation here. You see, strikes are theatre and like all effective public art forms, a mirror is turned on the audience. How do our consumption habits contribute to the labour conditions of fast-food workers? What privilege do we claim in this chain of consumption? Why does it require a strike across the United States for folks to realize all labour is equal?
So much of the labour involved in our daily lives—from the food processing plant, the textile factory, the fast-fashion chain shop re-stocked conveniently in the middle of the night, and of course, the fast-food chain—remains invisible to us. But we live in a society that allows a select few to thrive because certain jobs are performed at an incredibly low cost to corporations. For me, this is one of the great tragedies of our time. Because, as Ehrenreich points out, “When someone works for less pay than she can live on—-when for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—-then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.”
Incredibly important issues left out of most mainstream media reports are that the service sector is overwhelmingly staffed by women and persons of colour. The title of this post (si se puede) translates from Spanish to ‘Yes we can,’ and was a slogan chanted at many of the strikes on Thursday, in an effort to raise awareness that labour and white supremacy and sexism are linked. Organizers are quick to point out that the bulk of these positions in the fast-food sector are filled by persons of colour and women. So what does this suggest, broadly?
In short, our bodies are commodified. We sell our labour in exchange for money so that we can pay for necessities in our daily lives, and if we’re lucky, have a disposable income after essentials are acquired. That said, certain bodies are valued more: if we were to line up the fifty richest people in both Canada and the United States we would observe some trends. Specifically, that line-up would be predominantly white and male. In fact, the Urban Insitute (reported in the Toronto Star) released a study in April that revealed that from 1983 to 2010, white families averaged six times the wealth of black and Hispanic households, or $632,000 (U.S.) versus $98,000 and $110,000 respectively.
So, when someone attempts to tell you that some jobs are under-skilled and thus worth less than other positions, I hope you take this opportunity think long and hard about our current values when it comes to what labour is rewarded and who, precisely, reaps the benefits. The labour movement has fought for and won critical rights, including collective bargaining, the 40-hour work week, pensions, same-sex benefits, and the guarantee of safe working conditions. But minimum wage needs to be raised. Our health, our families, and our communities are more important than cheap, convenient goods, produced and transported at a huge cost to the people who make them and the environment.
In March 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. said the following: “We know of no more crucial civil rights issue facing Congress today than the need to increase the federal minimum wage and extend its coverage.” Almost fifty years later, and this issue had never been more urgent.