workers freedom

economics as if workers mattered

The low-wage, high-death economy

More than a thousand low-wage textile workers were killed last year in Bangladesh, because their bosses were so fixated on maximizing production that they ordered workers back into a building they knew was on the verge of collapse. How different is this from the 1911 Triangle Fire in New York City, when low-wage textile workers were burned to death or died leaping from windows to escape the flames? Or the 25 chicken processing workers who died in North Carolina in a 1991 fire because the boss had chained the emergency exit doors shut in order to make sure no one snuck out with a couple of chickens?

Workers were dying by the thousands for profits a century ago, and we are dying by the hundreds of thousands around the world to this day. Sometimes we die quickly, in fires and other disasters; sometimes the deaths linger over months or years. (The International Labour Organization estimates more than 2 million workers die each year of work-related diseases and “accidents,” most of which are entirely preventable.)

One principle always holds: the lower the pay, the more dangerous the job. You don’t see the CEO who pulls in millions of dollars working in dilapidated buildings with no working fire escapes or sprinklers. The corporate farmer who sprays farm workers with toxic chemicals is not in the fields breathing the poisons himself. No fashion designer ever came down with brown lung. And Starbucks’ CEO is in no danger from the repetitive stress injuries that plague his workers.

As we are editing this year’s calendar, thousands of fast food workers are mounting strikes and other job actions in dozens of cities across the United States, demanding a living wage and decent working conditions. They don’t have union protections, they don’t have any meaningful protection from discrimination and abuse, they don’t have health insurance for them or their kids.

But the fast food bosses would have you know that they care. Realizing that it’s hard for its workers to live on the minimum wages and irregular schedules McDonald’s prefers, the company now makes financial planners available to help workers manage their money. Only it turns out not to be so easy, and so those financial planners had to resort to budgeting 80 hours of pay a week (at different jobs, of course, since McDonald’s has no intention of paying anyone overtime) in order to get enough income to survive.

That’s not surprising. The strikers have been demanding a $15 an hour wage from the fast food giants, recognizing that it takes that much just to get by. (Fifty years ago, the widely celebrated National March for Jobs and Justice demanded a $2-an-hour minimum wage – adjusted for inflation, that works out to more than $15 an hour today.) But employers refuse even to discuss the matter, and media pundits (who never worked a minimum wage job in their lives) have dismissed the demand as a utopian fantasy.

When the tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, began their long campaign for a living wage, they noted that it would cost the fast food joints and other customers only about a penny a pound to double their wages. It took years of picketing before a few companies agreed to pay that pittance; many still refuse. (In June 2013, Mexican authorities freed some 275 tomato workers in Jalisco from slave-like conditions; the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ organizing in Florida has led to over 1,200 tomato pickers being freed from modern-day slavery in Florida, and a few years ago to an agreement by growers to no longer tolerate slavery in the fields.)

The harder the work, the lower the pay. And the lower the pay, the more likely the bosses are to turn to children and slavery to make their profits. The global chocolate industry, for example, depends upon child and slave labor to ensure rock-bottom prices for cocoa beans. The transnational corporations that profit off this abuse do not hire children or purchase slaves themselves, of course; they just keep demanding lower prices from producers, and then turn a blind eye to the consequences of their insatiable greed.

The international garment industry works the same way, as does the trade in computer components and other high-end gadgets. Everyone loses in this global race to the bottom, except for the bosses.

Millions of workers are losing ground every day, working harder to produce more to get less. And if we raise a peep of protest, they threaten to move the work somewhere else.

That’s true in the sweatshops of New York City, where the threat of replacement by low-wage workers in dismal firetraps in Bangladesh hangs over workers’ heads. It’s true in Bangladesh, where the bosses point out that they can always find someone even more desperately poor to exploit. It’s true in Haiti, where U.S. State Department officials demand that workers’ wages be held down so that corporate profits are not damaged.

Workers everywhere pay a heavy price for letting the bosses run the economy. It’s no different in the United States.

U.S. inflation-adjusted wages have fallen for the “bottom 70 percent” since 2002, even though productivity rose by 25 percent. (That’s a mighty big bottom; very few workers are making it in this economy. Things are of course very much worse at the lowest income levels.) And fewer of us are working, making the misery even worse.

But this is not just a product of the “Great Recession,” itself a global catastrophe brought on by the untrammeled greed of our economic masters. No, conditions for most workers have been getting steadily worse for decades. In 2011, 57 percent of U.S. households earned less than $60,000 – many much less. Given that the vast majority of those households were putting in at least 80 hours a week (two people holding down jobs; in many poorer households, of course, the adults have two or three jobs, and children are working too), the average wage is less than $15 an hour. Every living wage study has found that that’s barely enough to get by – which is why the fast food workers strikes have been demanding a $15 minimum.

Half of all American households are just barely getting by, living paycheck to paycheck with no cushion for survival if they lose one of their jobs or an emergency strikes.

Things really were better 50 years ago. Not for everyone, of course. Corporate executives had trouble affording third homes and personal shoppers and private jets. Now they’re rolling in so much cash they haven’t a clue what to do with it, and so they fling it at politicians and speculators with wild abandon.

In 2012 the top 1 percent received 19 percent of U.S. household incomes (about the same level as in 1929),  Moreover, when you add in the next 9 percent’s ill-gotten gains, 10 percent of U.S. households have 30 percent or more of household incomes.  To make this possible, it is necessary for at least 50 percent of American households to have a wage rate of less than $15.00 per hour. (Wealth, of course, is even more concentrated, as the rich do not need to spend most of their income on living.)

Low wages are not an accident. They are tied to the sky-high “wages” of the top 10 percent. And those who receive these low wages can only buy cheap stuff; buying that cheap stuff made and sold by other low-wage workers keeps the vicious cycle going. If workers did not earn such low wages, companies like WalMart could not exist.

No one’s work is free from the danger of becoming low-wage work. The wage we receive, just like the hours we work, is in no way a reflection of our skill level, nor of the importance of the work. Many workers do not earn even enough to sustain life, and so are forced to take multiple jobs or scrounge from dumps or turn to soup kitchens for survival.

Often, people doing the same work on the same job site receive radically different pay. This is true of warehouse workers (many are employed through subcontractors and so work by the day for a fraction of the pay, while a small core has higher pay and steady work), of retail workers (full-time staff typically earn far more than the part-timers, whose “flexibility” is so essential to allowing the bosses to extract maximum profits), of auto workers (the subcontracting never stops, and the further down the line of precarity one is, the more dangerous the work and the lower the pay), of teachers (many of whom are now forced into part-time positions paying a fourth or less per course of the full-time rates)…

In many countries, forming a union – or at least a union under the control of workers, rather than of the employers or the government – is illegal. In others, a combination of anti-labor laws and a complete lack of enforcement of the minimal protections that workers are supposed to enjoy, make forming an officially recognized union nearly impossible. As a result (and also because too many unions have limited their vision to what the law countenances), less than 1 in 14 private sector workers in the U.S. has union protection, even though half of all workers say they’d like to be in a union.

But a union is simply workers acting together to defend their interests. And because all wealth is created by labor, even “unorganized” workers have substantial power on the job which means that many workplace struggles can be won. Having won even modest gains, we have built the foundations – including the realization of our own nascent power – to take on bigger fights.

Workers at businesses from car washes to Wal-Mart are winning wage hikes and other improvements by acting union, by taking action even when there is little to no immediate prospect of union recognition.

We are often told that in this race-to-the-bottom economy, the best we can hope for is to hold on to the few scraps we have. But it isn’t true. Our wages have been stagnating (and for many falling) even as productivity has continued to increase. The bosses are moving production overseas (and sometimes moving it back again, having concluded that our fellow workers overseas are getting too uppity), slashing wages and benefits, and speeding up our work not because they’re going broke. No, they just want even more profits, and to hire even more parasites to supervise and market and generally live off the wealth we produce. In a great many workplaces, the bosses could easily afford to double wages – but that doesn’t mean they’ll do it unless they’re forced to.

Some critics seem to suggest that capitalism would be fine if the bosses could only be made to pay higher wages. But why should the bosses care how workers live so long as the capitalists and their lackies live well? Capitalism has no interest in the welfare of workers. While fighting for higher wages is a good thing, and fighting for safer working conditions even better; the only way to really improve workers’ conditions is to get rid of capitalism – since it is an economic system that has at its core the immiseration of workers for the benefit of the capitalists.

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