Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why the Anger at the Poor?

If you’re not poor, I’ve got a question for you.  Have you found yourself angry of late with those who have less than you?  And a follow-up, if you would allow me: why?

Why, oh why, oh why, are we so angry with the poor?  Why do commentators trash talk folks who work at MacDonalds and other fast-food chains for staging a walk out seeking higher wages?  Is it wrong to protest?  What’s so bad about going public with your desires?  About banding together with others in similar situations?  About exercising the same power that the corporations use in order to try to change your circumstances?

Whether you think someone ‘deserves’ a higher wage isn’t the point in a protest by workers.  This isn’t about changing existing laws.  This is about employees seeking a raise.

To compare your situation when you were 16 and presumably living at home with no expenses save those your parents assigned to you to the situation of someone who actually must survive on their wages is specious and insulting.

To tell someone who may only ever be qualified for a minimum wage job to move up the ladder is condescending.

The valuation of labor in a society has little to do with intrinsic worth to the society.  A corporate CEO is not inherently more valuable to a society than a food service worker.  Think of it this way: one of them, if they get it wrong, could actually kill you on the spot.  (Hint: it’s not the CEO – it usually takes a CEO much longer).  And while I enjoy sporting events as much as the next person (well, okay, I probably don’t), intrinsic worth has nothing to do with their levels of pay, especially at the higher end of the scale.  Ditto movie stars.  Ditto, ditto, ditto.

If we measured pay based on intrinsic worth, wouldn’t we begin with those who provide food and shelter?  The farmers, grocers, restaurant workers, home builders (meaning the actual carpenters and joiners and not the company’s head), etc.?

Walking in the shoes of another is more a good and healthy exercise than it is a catchy bumper sticker.  The next best thing is to imagine those shoes.  Imagine trying to actually live on a minimum wage.

It’s not, perhaps, that it can’t be done.  I’m not in a position to say.  But even if it can be done, the thing is that there’s no margin for error – none.  There is no breathing room.  One blip and the whole house can come tumbling down.  One trip to the emergency room and the budget’s shot for months, if not years.  One request home for money for a school trip is a family crisis.  And one family member with out-of-the-norm expenses (such as an on-going medical problem) renders the entire family unit unviable.

When those who have groan and worry, those who do not have have long been beyond the place of groan and worry and wonder what all the fuss is about.  When those who have lament, those who do not have pray, not necessarily because their faith is deeper, but because there is no other place to go.  I think, anyway, for I’ve been either blessed or cursed never up to now to have to know.

But this I do know: it is unseemly at best for we who have so much to begrudge those who do not in trying to attain more.  And if you think organizing a labor movement isn’t work, I suggest you give it a try.

Years ago, I asked my uncle Harvey, who worked his adult life as an executive for Good Year International, what the solution is to low wages, inequalities, and poor conditions in the work place.  His answer was quick, unequivocal and clear: labor unions.  Genuine, international, independent labor unions.

I was surprised at the answer coming from him as it did – this, after all, was a man who spent his adult life on the corporate side of the equation.  It took me years to understand that his work had actually given him a bird’s eye view, leading him to the obvious conclusion that only with parity of power can there be fairness.

So to the fast-food workers who go on strike seeking higher wages and benefits, I say well done and Godspeed.

And shame on you, Brian Kikmeade, Steve Docy, the Employment Policies Institute, Neil Cavuto, Tracy Burns, for a failure of moral imagination that at the least, cannot appreciate folks with less using the same strategies that you use to advance in your own lives (making allies, expressing your concerns, seeking advantage, working together cooperatively, to name but a few).

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