What have we become? Look around you and what do you see? We drive by Main Street and Strip Mall America and all we see are ‘For Lease’ and ‘Closed’ signs. Our nation is inundated with boxstores and national chains. One Stop Shopping is what Americans want, isn’t it? NO! It’s what they tell you that you want.
This writer can recall his teen years in Brooklyn N. Y. Christmas was such a wonderful season. I would stroll down the avenue and buy all my Christmas gifts. First stop was the ladies store, or whatever it was called. I purchased a blouse for my mom, nightgown for one grandma and towels for the other. Down the street I came to the Men’s apparel shop. I bought pajamas for my dad and handkerchiefs for my grandfather. The leather goods shop was next and I bought my brother a nice new wallet. After shopping, I went into the produce store and bought a few tangerines for snacks. Then I went into the German deli and got myself a nice hero sandwich for lunch. All on the avenue.
America used to be a Union nation. Many working folks belonged to a union. You paid your dues and, with some exceptions (company controlled ‘sweetheart unions’) , you were protected from cuts in pay and sudden layoffs. My dad and grandfather belonged to the ILA (International Longshoremen’s Association). Yes, it was mob controlled and far from perfect, but…. Better than not having a union. My mom would take us, when we were ill, to the ILA’s free clinic in downtown Brooklyn. My dad and grandfather got paid vacations, lots of sick pay, and salary increases on a regular basis. Of course, things could have been better if the mob did not have its hands in the till. Yet, during the last three years of his time as a longshoreman, my dad had seniority , and the union had a guaranteed pay clause in their contract with the shipping companies. Translated: since they did not need all the workers the union had, the shippers had to guarantee the salaries of those not needed to work, meaning men with seniority. So each morning my dad got up, ate breakfast and drove to the union hall. He showed his badge, signed in, and then was sent home… With a full day’s pay owed to him. That is what a union could do.
Today, less than 15 % of American workers are unionized. Of that number, most are government workers. In the private sector less than one in ten is in a union. In essence, American workers are truly at the whim of the employer. You look at the boxstores like Wal-Mart (America’s #1 private sector employer) and see how we are a nation of indentured servants.
Let’s look at the numbers and see what I mean. What is the average salary for a Wal-Mart associate (the label is such a joke in itself)? Maybe he or she earns $9.00 an hour. OK, let’s make it $10 an hour for argument sake. They work 40 hours, meaning a gross of $400 a week. Take out the approximately 7% for FICA and then federal withholding and the take home is what? About $300 a week, just for argument. The employee has no employer paid health coverage to speak of. If they do, it is probably with a high deductible and CO pay. That means if the worker gets sick, money has to come out of pocket, and not just $10 . More like $40 or $50 and that doesn’t include the cost of medicine. If the Wal-Mart worker has a young child and is a single parent (which is over 50% of the workforce) the child has to have day care if not yet in school. That takes money. Then you have rent for a two bedroom apartment (or they both share one bedroom — most likely) and a car payment, gas for the car, repairs for the car, food and clothing. Need I go on? How in the hell is a single parent earning $300 a week take home pay going to afford all that !?
In the not so good old days they had company towns with company housing etc. In the feudalistic days they had the farm with the manor house and living quarters for the workers. Check out the fine Swedish film Pelle The Conquerer to see how that looked. All in all, these folks were what we call indentured servants… In ‘debt’ to the employer. Tell me what is so different from that Wal-Mart worker? Unfortunately, many Mom and Pop businesses are not immune from this mindset. A friend once worked as a carpenter for a local cabinet manufacturing shop. The employer paid a few dollars above minimum wage to the 4 or 5 craftsmen he had working for him. In a union shop, the workers would have earned 25% more and received better benefits. This shop did not pay for health coverage. Of course, the owner made sure his two children and his wife (and himself) all had brand new BMW cars…. On the company nut.
Some reading this would say ‘Well, God bless him to take care of his family. After all, he started and built up the business and why shouldn’t he have the very best?’ My answer is what the Japanese instituted decades ago. It was called the 15 times system (now it may be up to 30 times) . It followed a structure that the very highest earner in a company could not make more than 15 times his lowest full time worker. Do the math, even at 30 times and see if that cabinet shop owner would be buying BMWs for the whole family. In America, the Fortune 100 companies have CEOs who average over 400 times the pay of their lowest paid full time employee.
As the economy tanks again and again, the question is how much longer will the indentured servants quietly trudge into work each day? When will the majority of us who make up the workforce say ‘Enough is enough’?