By David Dayen, a lapsed blogger, now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Follow him on Twitter @ddayen
The past several years have demonstrated the obvious point that inequality and depression will combine to produce flares of mass social unrest. You see this in Europe and the Middle East, where rising food prices had as much to do with the Arab Spring as decades of political repression. Things are no different here in America. Even though elites are fortunate enough to have a militarized local law enforcement apparatus in place to make sure the rabble doesn’t get too out of control, these flares, indications of broader awareness that in an economy rigged against them, the only recourse is to step outside the system and shout to the heavens. We’ve seen this before in US history; it was called the Gilded Age, and it led to the set of progressive reforms as well as a legacy of labor organizing that might, just might, be awakening from what seems like a decades-long slumber.
Over the past year or so, low-wage workers have staged wildcat strikes, walking off the job for a day or two. It started at Walmart, America’s low-wage giant, the largest private employer in the US and the company that the Federal Open Market Committee looks to when making macroeconomic policy decisions. Workers in dozens of stores walked out last October and November, demanding better pay and working conditions, stable hours and above all, respect. This has predictably spread to other parts of the low-wage sector. Fast food and retail workers have been systematically striking, one city at a time, under the banner of a $15 per hour living wage. Workers in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee have walked off the job in the one-day wildcat strikes. SEIU and a variety of community groups have been behind the stoppages. It would be natural to expect chronic one-day strikes like this at the beginnings of union formation. This is exactly how voiceless workers in the 1880s and 1890s began to mass their collective power. That doesn’t mean it will succeed, but it means it’s following a very similar script.
Yesterday’s action in Washington involved the 2 million workers paid, directly or indirectly, by the federal government, who make $12 an hour or less. The federal government is actually the largest low-wage job creator in America, higher than Walmart, McDonald’s or anyone else. The Demos report detailing this is very thorough and has already spurred a House Democratic investigation (believe it or not, Steny Hoyer’s going to show up at it):
These are employees working on behalf of America, doing jobs that we have decided are worthy of public funding—yet they’re being treated in a very un-American way. Our nation has a history of ensuring our tax dollars provide decent jobs. From the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act to Executive Order 11246 of 1965, and a host of other laws and executive actions, our laws have mandated that companies working on behalf of the American people are upholding high standards of employment practices. Yet as the nature and prevalence of federal contracting, lending and grant-making have changed, and some laws have been weakened, working people have fallen through the cracks.
When our tax dollars underwrite bad jobs, the economy as a whole is weakened and all of us are negatively affected. There is a ripple effect as low-paid workers and their families have little money to spend, hindering economic growth that could be creating more jobs. Poorly-paid workers also contribute less in taxes and are more likely to rely on public benefits to care for their families. In contrast, we would all benefit from an economy where workers earn good wages—and we have a special responsibility to see that the people working on behalf of our nation are paid and treated fairly. Raising standards for people working on behalf of America is one important piece to providing opportunities for workers to reach the middle class.
Hundreds of these employees walked off the job yesterday. Food courts at the Reagan Federal Building and the Air and Space Museum had to shut down. Here’s one worker’s story:
“I can’t even afford to get an apartment or raise my daughter properly because of the money that I’m making,” said Jonathan Ross, one of the D.C. strikers. Ross works at the Constitution Café, a privately managed restaurant in the Smithsonian Institute’s American History Museum. He told MSNBC that after four years of being employed at the restaurant, he still makes only $9.71 an hour.
“For the four years I’ve been here, I’ve had a 10-cent raise, a 15-cent raise, and another 10-cent raise,” he said. While he doesn’t receive federal assistance in the form of food stamps or subsidized housing, he said he struggles to provide for his 15-year-old daughter, over whom he has sole custody.
Josh Eidelson has more. The President could actually do something about federal contractors who violate labor law and underpay their workers without having to go through Congress, incidentally.
These low-wage worker actions are small in the grand scheme of things, but significant because of what they represent – mass dissatisfaction with the current economic order. The land of the free imposes lots of barriers to this type of assembly, action and speech, many of them psychological. The American “ideal” of individual work ethic places lots of pressure on people not getting by in this economy to blame themselves, to see their lot as part of some personal deficiency. And when that doesn’t work, there’s good old-fashioned police repression.
I highlight this even though I don’t completely support yesterday’s action by homeowners out in front of the Justice Department. I don’t completely support it because one of the main organizations that put the action together, under the umbrella group Campaign for a Fair Settlement, basically sold out these same homeowners when they threw in their lot with Eric Schneiderman and his Potemkin task force, squandering whatever leverage was gained over banks for their abuses of property laws. I don’t trust the instincts of these people, nor do I trust that the protests will amount to anything of value, and I fear that elements of the Occupy Our Homes movement, who stayed overnight in front of DoJ, are being misled by bad leadership. But at some level, this exists on a continuum with the labor strikes; desperate actions by desperate people fighting a rigged economic system and their own government’s implication in the policies that support it. And what happens in the clip below to Carmen Pittman, an Occupy Our Homes fighter in Atlanta who spent a year saving her house from JPMorgan Chase, is indicative of how the state reacts to these flares of unrest:
Digby summons the requisite outrage at this; that it happened on the steps of the Department of Justice makes it all the more shameful. Unfortunately, if this doesn’t connect to an actual strategy to build power, it’s just ritual pulverizing. And I don’t know if the galvanizing power of outrage even exists anymore in America – the famous pepper sprayer at UC-Davis was basically a one-day story. But I include it because it’s worth noting what happens to non-elites when they step outside carefully constructed lines of polite dissent.
Whatever you think of the value of public protest or one-day strikes with set time limits, I see them as part of a stirring. Occupy and Wisconsin and what’s happening right now in North Carolina (about 60 civil rights activists get arrested every Monday to protest the actions of their state legislature) fit within that context as well. These vapors circling around the country don’t have to form into a solid mass, and they won’t without a lot of clever, savvy organizing and strategizing. But the conditions do exist for it to happen. Life still retains the ability to surprise.