Politicians of all stripes are talking about nothing but the so-called “fiscal cliff.” This debate, though, takes place within a Washington ideological bubble when what the rest of the country is worried about is the remorseless increase in food and gas prices while wages are frozen, squeezing the low pay of workers in service jobs. There is a major clash developing between the Republican party’s push for more cuts in social programs and those who depend on them to make ends meet.
The recent strikes at Walmart and in the fast food industry signify that people’s backs are to the wall and their need for a living wage is becoming urgent. The growing upsurge in worker resistance has three important features. The first is the spontaneous and worker-driven nature of the actions, which are targeted to their specific industry. The second is that the catalyst in many cases has been the support of union and community activists working to organize the low-paid. And the third is that each strike has had a ripple effect, encouraging others who were hesitating before taking action on their own behalf.
The fast food workers in New York, for instance, were given confidence by the Walmart Black Friday strikes. Pamela Waldron, who works for Kentucky Fried Chicken at Penn Station, told Democracy Now: “At my job, they are threatening us that if we do join the union, they could fire us. … What inspired me to do this is the Wal-Mart strike. Wal-Mart has been around too long for them not to have a union.” Raymond Lopez said: “I’ve been on strike since 5:30 a.m. I strongly believe that when the people on the bottom move, the people on the top fall. The reason—the reason you’re on the top, because we’re holding you up.”
In Chicago, according to In These Times, “a campaign to organize both retail and fast food workers in one dense, upscale commercial district started earlier this year, thanks to a similar coalition involving SEIU and two closely-aligned organizations, Stand Up, Chicago! and Action Now, a community organization focused primarily on issues of lower-income working people. On Nov. 15, about 150 workers from fast food and retail stores located in the North Michigan Avenue area formally convened the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago to organize and create a new independent union.”
Sarah Jaffe notes in The Atlantic: “What we’ve seen with Walmart and now with the fast food workers is [that] an independent organization, supported by traditional labor unions (in this case, the Service Employees International Union along with New York Communities for Change, United NY, and the Black Institute), can be more creative in its organizing tactics.”
Democracy Now co-host Juan Gonzalez was struck by the age of the workers involved in the strike. “But what’s happened as a result of the Great Recession and the continual downward push on wages is that you’re finding now a lot of middle-aged and elderly people who are in these jobs. … the reality is that as these older workers get pushed into these low-wage jobs, all of them have had, to some degree, union experience in the past. They understand the importance of unions, and they’re now becoming the catalyst in the fast-food industry to begin a—what could be, potentially, a huge unionization campaign.”
The continuity of these strikes with the Occupy movement can be seen in the fact that many strikers point to the huge disparity in the profits made by the companies they work for and their subsistence-level wages. Even without a direct organizational connection, the imaginary of the 99 versus the one percent has had a visceral resonance.
Some commentators, like In These Times writer Michelle Chen, have compared the current campaigns of the low-waged to early twentieth century syndicalist movements, like the Industrial Workers of the World. “The IWW’s signature organizing model, syndicalism (which prioritizes direct action in the workplace), meshes with the growing trend in the labor movement toward less bureaucratic labor groups, such as worker centers and immigrant advocacy campaigns. Flexible mobilization that doesn’t require formal votes or union certification is well-suited to precarious laborers seeking to outmaneuver the multinationals. … And while the heyday of syndicalism has faded, the food economy’s sheer mass and dynamism may prove fertile ground for its resurgence.”
However, conditions for immigrant workers today are very different from those of the early 1900s. Struggles since that time have established a structure of labor law and have solidified popular expectations of the social contract and state responsibility to ameliorate poverty. So direct action at the workplace is part of a broader front including legal and political battles, even though new worker organizations may not be closely tied politically to the Democrats like traditional unions. For example, as well as fighting Walmart’s subcontractors over wage theft and labor abuses, lawyers acting for the workers involved have recently succeeded in adding Walmart as a defendant, undercutting its denials of responsibility and increasing pressure on the company to change its labor practices.
The election manifested the country’s support for an increase in taxes on the rich and super-rich. But because Republicans (and the Democrats who give into the rhetoric) want to cut social programs while maintaining corporate welfare, the national debate has been expanded to the issue of a living wage for the working poor. A study by Demos finds that if retailers were to pay a minimum of $25,000 per year to their employees, it would raise more than 700,000 people out of poverty.
In addition, the report goes on, “The economy would grow and 100,000 or more new jobs would be created. Families living in or near poverty spend close to 100 percent of their income just to meet their basic needs, so when they receive an extra dollar in pay, they spend it on goods or services that were out of reach before. … Increased purchasing power of low-wage workers would generate $4 to $5 billion in additional annual sales for the sector. … If retailers pass half of the costs of a wage raise onto their customers, the average household would pay just 15 cents more per shopping trip—or $17.73 per year.”
Paul Krugman confirms this analysis in many of his columns, repeatedly expressing frustration at the ideological commitment of financiers and corporate flacks in the GOP to austerity, and pointing out that what is needed to jumpstart the economy are more jobs and higher wages. Robert Reich comments: “Washington’s obsession with deficit reduction makes it all the more likely these workers will face continuing high unemployment – even higher if the nation succumbs to deficit hysteria. That’s because cutting government spending reduces overall demand, which hits low-wage workers hardest. They and their families are the biggest casualties of austerity economics.”
The “fiscal cliff” rhetoric takes place in this context. It’s really a Republican scam on behalf of the one percent to undo the election result and extort yet more sacrifices from the rest of society to jack up their incomes. Their dream of massive cuts in social entitlements will create a firestorm among the low-paid if they attempt to carry it out. A social collision is inevitable, and this will dominate the coming twists and turns in the political arena.