Living Paycheck To Paycheck

Ed Raymond

The French “yellow vest” is required for each driver in case of an accident. It is now the symbol of income-inequality protest in France and may represent the beginning of World War III and the battle between the haves and have-nots. Caravans of the poor are assaulting borders on five continents while half of the populace in developed countries is living paycheck to paycheck. The smart phone and the Internet have brought fantastic wealth and crippling poverty in view to every street corner. Over 200 years ago the French who couldn’t afford vests or cake dropped the severed heads of the rich into baskets from the famous equalizer, the French Razor. The plutocrats of the world don’t seem to understand they are in danger wherever they go.  In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” his last stanza records the end of our world:

“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends                                      
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper”

He gives the reason for our failure in his first stanza when he describes our leaders:
“We are
 the hollow men, we are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas, Our dried voices
When we whisper together are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass or rats feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.”

Walmart, Sears, And Amazon Have Destroyed Millions Of Small U.S. Businesses

The French protesters have their yellow vests while  Walmart protesters wear their blue vests and Amazon protesters wear their yellow. As an example, Amazon protesters yelled  “We are not robots” as they walked out of “fulfillment” warehouses in Spain, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States last month. Protests on working conditions and wages were held at Shakopee just last week where Amazon employs 1,500 workers. The leader of the English union which represents Amazon employees in the UK charged: “The conditions our members at Amazon are working under are frankly inhuman. They are breaking bones, being knocked unconscious, and being taken away in ambulances. (Some workers are hit by robots.) The workers are saying enough is enough. Jeff Bezos is the richest bloke on the planet: he can afford to sort this out. These are people making Amazon its money. We are protesting low wages.”

Nicholas Oates, an Amazon worker in Kansas City, has described his work this way: “It’s a depressing work culture because I’ve seen countless people get chewed up and spit out at this job. After I survived peak season, I couldn’t recognize my department anymore. So many people were gone.” Although full-time, Oates is homeless and lives out of his car in the Amazon parking lot. Struggling with depression, he says, “My quality of sleep has been horrible, I’ve only been getting four to five hours a night tops.”

Developed countries have put cattle, pigs, turkeys, chickens and other “products” into huge factories where they are in tiny cages. Now we are doing the same thing to human workers in huge retail “fulfillment” centers. The 7.6 billion people on earth eat 65 billion chickens a year, most of them raised on factory farms by ill-treated workers—just like the poor chickens in the tiny cages.

Workers Now Work Under The Same Conditions As Factory Animals

Vivian Valadez in a Guardian article described her working conditions while employed by Sanderson Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the United States. In the plant the 1,400 workers are scheduled for one 12-minute break and a 30-minute lunch period during their eight-hour shift.  For many workers, however, the bathrooms are so far from their work stations it takes 3 to 5 minutes to get to them. A Sanderson supervisor admitted they were told to ignore many requests for bathroom breaks. Some workers have physical conditions which force them to take more bathroom breaks. Often they pee in their pants on the job. Many of the workers are undocumented and single mothers who are very vulnerable to intimidation. A union president in another factory farm  said the poultry industry “has created  a culture to keep people living in fear.” Many workers do not drink water at all before and during the first half of their shift. When OSHA visits to check on working conditions, the Sanderson workers are given three bathroom breaks! OSHA standards require bathroom breaks must be given whenever they are needed—within reason.

Amazon has had the same problems with bathroom breaks as all “factory farm” industries have.  Amazon employees have testified that many workers pee in their pants or in bottles in order to stay on the job and keep the products flowing. Large retail operations such as Walmart and Sears-K-Mart have evolved to the same working conditions in order to keep up. Naomi Castro, a K-Mart employee in Los Angeles, described her job this way: “It’s really stressful. It’s chaos everywhere. Having to keep up with the pace management expects you to work at, dealing with the mess and the customers, my anxiety is through the roof.” Sixty years ago during my high school days I worked at the J.C. Penny store in Little Falls. It was a great experience!

Some Workers Are Fighting Back

Large corporations always spend fortunes fighting unions but some workers are fighting back by forming groups of their own.  Workers some time try to embarrass owners and CEOs, but many are not “embarrassable.” Walmart workers have publicly protested to Alice Walton, the daughter of the founder, several times. Two weeks ago Walmart workers confronted her outside her Manhattan penthouse demanding pay increases of a minimum of $15 an hour. Alice didn’t like it. She said: “It’s not my job.” How can anyone live in New York for $15 an hour?  At the same time the protesters drew a large crowd outside the $44 million Manhattan penthouse of Marc Lore, the Walmart CEO. I often wonder what would happen if the 1.4 million Walmart employees walked off the job a week before Christmas. It’s the only way they can get the $160 billion Walton family’s attention.    

Walmart has stores in every state and Amazon markets in every state. There is not a state in the country where a full-time individual Walmart or Amazon worker makes enough money to cover the basic costs of living in that state, let alone the costs of a family. The Organization United for Respect (OUR), a non-profit that pushes for higher wages and better living conditions for retail workers,  stated this in an interview with co-director Andrea Dehlendorf: “There are two major trends in retail: corporations are squeezing people harder every day, and people are fighting back within that context to make some real gains happen.” Madeline Chambers, a single mother with two children working at a North Carolina Walmart adds some perspective to the wage problem (she says she lives on the brink of homelessness): “Last year, four of the Walton family members made $12.7 billion in a single day. It would take a Walmart associate like me 650,000 years working full-time to make that much.”  

Strong unions are the answer to this inequality but corporations like Amazon, already under fire for condoning poor working conditions, uses a video it produced with this statement: “We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either.”  What the hell does that mean?  Everybody knows. Of course, it is anti-union.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is now the world’s richest man, and this is how he does it. Many full-timr Amazon employees have to rely on public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps to survive, thus depending upon all of us taxpayers to survive in this economic climate. Both Amazon and Walmart spend millions on union-busting lawyers.

Slave-Like Plantations In California’s “Valley Of Fear”

There is a fascinating, informative article written by Michael Greenberg in the New York Review of Books about factory farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley that make California America’s real breadbasket. I was raised on a 180-are pile of sand and rock near Little Falls where we milked 20 cows, raised many little pigs to sell at market, and raised geese, rabbits, ducks, and chickens to grace our table. We often supplemented those delicacies with squirrel stew harvested from the nearby woods. We had a little orchard for apples and plums. It’s hard for me to believe that a California farmer who owns 38,000 acres of land grows only broccoli and lettuce on his “farm”---and supervises his pickers in the fields by airplane. He is part of the valley known as “The Valley of Fear.”

The San Joaquin Valley is 234 miles long and 130 miles wide but is a major part of the $47 billion California hauls in from agriculture, twice as much as Iowa, the second largest farm income state. The money comes from raisins, grapes, pistachios, almonds, tomatoes, garlic, stone fruits, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, and many other crops. It has very high-value farmland. But there is a surplus of fear in the valley. It is based on living and working conditions and the fact that about 80% of the hand and “stoop” labor is done by illegals. Want to pick tomatoes for a living? You’ll get 73 cents for every five-gallon bucket you fill. A skilled and fast picker can make between $75 and $85 in a five hour shift. There is no middle class in the valley. Only 30% of the school teachers are actually certified.

Because of the heat in the valley, many times reaching 110 degrees by 10 a.m., most field work hours are between 5 and 10 a.m. That’s a minor part of the story. Because of the heavy use of pesticides and fertilizer, cancer rates are very high in the valley. The ground is even hardened by chemicals. So, in this heat, what does the field worker do to protect himself? He covers himself with layers of clothing.  The usual uniform includes baseball caps anchored by scarves and hoodies, a couple of sweatshirts, two pairs of pants, heavy socks and boots, leaving only eyes and fingers exposed. Heatstroke is common. Americans will not do “stoop” labor. Example: In 2010 during the Great Recession a job website got four million hits and around 12,000 hungry Americans responded. Only 12 legal residents showed up for work in the valley. No American lasted the first day.

The Trump administration maintains a heavy presence of ICE in the valley. This heightens the fear in the valley. Families are afraid to leave the house during non-work hours and try to avoid grocery stores where ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) often checks for illegals. But what are the valley growers to do? Already there is a tremendous labor shortage and millions of tons of food is not even picked. The growers do not want any kind of authorized guest-worker program because they fear it would cost them a ton of money to provide housing, good working conditions, and decent wages and benefits. They want to keep the present slave plantation model that made the Southern cotton growers rich  in the 19th Century. I wonder when all of our underpaid workers will start to wear yellow vests and raise hell like my French cousins are doing. In Eliot’s fourth stanza he describes a situation  like today as being “in this hollow valley, this broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.”