LAKE MACBRIDE— 52 days of work for a nearby logistics company was an eye opener. In a world of constant electronic contact with smartphones and computers— via social media applications, on-line corporate media outlets and Internet discussion groups— our perceptions of society lean toward generalities and abstraction. Progressive commentary, about increasing the minimum wage and union organizing, seems disconnected when one works with others for low wages. As a worker, it is obvious there are inequalities in pay for work, and that the disparity between the richest Americans and the majority is widening. Yet people need an income, so they give up part of their freedom to toil in the fields of corporate masters, voluntarily.
In my short span as a warehouse worker, an endless river of people flowed through the building, each finding value, at least enough to attract them to the work, in the manual labor. Whether it was the prestige of having a job, working with friends, or socializing with new people, the monetary compensation was inadequate to have made it the main attraction. Some said they worked there to pay bills, but the compensation alone could not sustain the simplest of lives on the Iowa prairie.
The payday for low paying work is building a social network to help meet basic economic needs— one based in direct human contact, unfiltered by electronic media. A host of services was available because of the work relationship. A tattoo artist offered his ink, people of means offered loans, and gardeners offered to exchange vegetables and baked goods. There was ride-sharing, child care and a network of discovery of ways to escape low paying work for something better. Human society in places like this is like a living coral reef, where everyone’s needs can be met at a certain level.
Part of the learning was that such jobs are available, there is an ample supply of labor to fill them, physical stamina is required to perform the work, and a steady paycheck can play a role in a broader life. When we consider our choices in life— health care, a place to live, food to eat, taxes, loan interest and insurance— sustaining basic living can be problematic at $9.25 per hour without benefits. There is no simple resolution to this deficiency in pay for work.
Two progressive nostrums offer no help: organizing a union and increasing the minimum wage.
When I met Andy Stern, then president of Service Employees International Union, we talked about organizing logistics workers. Stern agreed labor unions lost the battle of maintaining union drivers and dock workers after the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated trucking. He suggested there was a new organizing possibility in the logistics workers who are the next layer of employees in a global supply chain. He felt it fit well with what his union was doing organizing janitorial and health services workers. Having worked a career for a company that made the transition from all union to non-union as deregulation rolled out, I was skeptical.
After my experience at the warehouse, Stern’s hope to organize logistics workers seems unrealistic. Not only is the corporation that was the ultimate customer for our work removed from employees, there were multiple layers of removal. A lengthy probationary period working for a temporary employment service distanced beginning workers from the company. Multiple temporary employment companies were used. Likewise, the logistics company to whom we were leased from the temp agency was a subcontractor for the company, working on successive three-year contracts. Colleagues often did not know for whom they would be working if they successfully made it through the temporary employment agency to the logistics company as employees. On a given day, people doing the same work received paychecks from at least three different entities. When combined with high employee turnover, union organizing would be nearly impossible in such an environment.
The progressive talk about raising the minimum wage is a case of barking up the wrong tree. At two dollars an hour above minimum wage, the warehouse work attracted former box store employees, fast food restaurant employees and other minimum wage earners. The earnings alone were not enough to live, even modestly.
When I heard former labor secretary Robert Reich speak in Iowa City, one topic was the widening inequality in society and concentration of wealth among the richest one percent of the population. He pointed out that the minimum wage was not the correct measure of how wage earners were doing. What matters more is that the median wage keeps up with the overall economy, something it has not done. He recently wrote, “the problem is we haven’t been living nearly as well as our growing economy should have allowed us to live,” and that if wages tracked the economy, the median wage would be over $90,000 per year today ($43.27 per hour for a 40 hour work week). Progressives may feel good about advocating for an increase in the minimum wage, however, an increase would not address the fundamental problem wage earners face on a daily basis. A substantial portion of their economic survival depends on social networking rather than their rate of pay from a single job.
The eye opener for me while working at the warehouse was that in a workplace where no one had ever heard of me, my work was accepted by management and by my colleagues without question. People find value in working a job at any rate of pay because the real value is in the social networking it enables. One doesn’t hear that in the social or corporate media, but maybe we should.