Resisting Dystopia: US Workers push back against a grotesque reality
Staggering levels of inequality, unsafe working conditions, low wages, wage theft and union busting are just some aspects of the dystopian reality that workers in the US face. But, as 2022 dawns, they are fighting back in exciting and important ways.
As 2022 dawns workers in the US are pushing back against what can only be described as our Dystopia Now for the working-class, gig economy workers and precarious workers.
There are so many signs of how terribly vicious North American capitalism is in the late neo-liberal/pandemic that it is hard to narrow down the recent examples.
Public school teachers scrounging for dollar bills at centre ice during a hockey game break in South Dakota in December certainly comes to mind.
This little bit of grotesque arena entertainment was so that they could pick up a few extra bucks for their underfunded classrooms.
Meanwhile, in late December a leaked email from November 23 showed that Amazon in the US was warning its workers that the upcoming "peak" volume of the holiday season might make them feel suicidal.
"Peak is a busy time for our entire team as everyone is dedicated to helping customers receive their holiday packages on time. It's easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed," the leaked email, dated November 23, reads. "And while most of us never pose a risk to others, some people can act out in a way that causes concern. This could be due to many factors in their lives, not just what they experience at work. Regardless of the cause, workplace violence is never the answer." [Emphasis theirs]
The worker who provided the email to Engadget could not recall similar messaging during previous peaks. "I've been with Amazon a little over four years now and they've never mentioned anything about our mental status until now," they wrote in an email. "Our leadership hasn't announced anything [other] than quota related issues."
The email goes on to draw a connection between the grueling workload of peak and the potential for self-harm. "Remember that your mental health matters," it reads. "If you experience stress, feelings of depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide, please talk with your manager, a human resources business partner, or a mental health professional." It directs workers to use the company's "free, confidential counselors and other resources."
On December 22 a report by the Economic Policy Institute revealed that wage theft by employers is so prevalent that more than $3 billion in stolen wages recovered for workers between 2017 and 2020:
Over the last four decades, the U.S. economy has been marked by extreme inequality, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of this global pandemic and an economic crisis, the number of individuals with household weekly earnings below the poverty line rose to 65.1 million, a 28% increase from February to June 2020. In contrast, CEO pay rose by nearly 19% in 2020. This rise in poverty and pay inequality is compounded by wage theft, which robs millions of workers of billions of dollars from their paychecks each year.
The Canadian union Unifor noted on January 4 how grocery execs were paid millions while denying pandemic pay to workers:
Top executives at Canada’s grocery giants have been paid millions in bonuses while continuing to deny pandemic pay to frontline essential grocery workers.
“These same executives took away $2 an hour pandemic pay from their workers after only a few weeks of the first wave back in June 2020,” said Unifor National President Jerry Dias. “The CEO’s and top execs continue to reap the rewards of COVID-19 boosted sales while their workers face the risks to keep food on the table for Canadians.”
The Globe and Mail reports that executives at Metro Inc., Loblaw Companies Ltd. and Sobeys parent company Empire Company Ltd. received near maximum personal bonuses during their most recent fiscal years. In the past two fiscal years, Empire CEO Michael Medline made more than $20 million including stock options. In its last fiscal year, Metro paid CEO Eric La Flèche more than $5 million, including stocks and options, while Loblaw Executive Chairman Galen G. Weston made $3.55 million and now retired President Sarah Davis more than $4.5 million.
On January 12 it was reported that a "Disturbing New Report Shows Dire Conditions For Grocery Workers":
An alarming new survey of thousands of grocery workers across three western U.S. states reveals that they suffer from shockingly high rates of poverty. More than three-quarters of the workers meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of “food insecure,” and 14% say they have been homeless within the past year.
The survey, which was funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and performed by the nonprofit research group the Economic Roundtable, drew responses from more than 10,000 workers at Kroger, the largest all-grocery chain in the United States. (Kroger also owns other grocery brands including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, and City Market.) The workers surveyed live in Southern California, Washington state, and Colorado, and all of them are UFCW members – indicating that the abysmal conditions reported may in fact be better than the conditions of the average U.S.grocery worker, given the fact that all of those surveyed have at least the minimal protections that union contracts provide.
Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College who co-authored the new report, believes that it is one of the largest independent surveys of retail workers ever performed in the United States. “We scoured pretty carefully the terrain of polling and surveys that have been done, and didn’t see anything remotely close,” he says.
Among the survey’s findings:
- Fourteen percent of Kroger workers are now homeless, or have been within the past year. More than one-third say they fear being evicted. Even among full time employees, 15% say that they cannot pay their next rent or mortgage bill.
- The study’s authors calculated that a living wage for Kroger workers would be $22 an hour, working full time – about $46,000 per year. But only 35% of the workers surveyed work full time, and the average wage for a Kroger worker is less than $18 per hour, which amounts to less than $30,000 per year. Even workers who have been at Kroger more than 14 years do not make a living wage, averaging under $21 per hour.
- Contrary to public perception, the majority of Kroger workers have some college or post-graduate education. Eighty five percent are high school graduates. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed say they are not fairly compensated for their experience and work, and more than 90% say they will not have enough money for retirement.
- Despite working around food all day, one-quarter of Kroger workers say that they went hungry in the past year because they could not afford food. Fourteen percent say they receive food stamps. Kroger offers employees only a 10% discount on food at the store.
- A quarter of workers say that their work schedule is so unstable that they do not know it more than one day in advance. Unstable work schedules are correlated with other other problems, like food and housing insecurity.
- A majority of Kroger workers say they were faced with customers who refused to wear masks during the pandemic. Only 43% of those who faced “disrespectful or threatening” customers say that management intervened to help them in those situations.
Kroger workers, like many American workers, are fighting back.
More than 8,000 workers at nearly 80 King Soopers stores went on strike for better wages on Wednesday as negotiations stalled, but the stores stayed open as the Kroger Co-owned (KR.N) Colorado chain hired temporary staff and promoted online ordering.
The strike started at 7:00 a.m. ET and would go on for three weeks, the UFCW Local 7 union said. The striking workers are employed at King Soopers stores in the Denver metropolitan area, Boulder, Parker and Broomfield cities of Colorado, among others.
The strike is the latest of its kind in the United States, following similar demonstrations at Kellogg Co's (K.N) cereal plants and Deere & Co (DE.N) as rising Omicron infections and inflation push workers to demand better working conditions and higher pay.
They are far from alone.
Amazon workers in Chicago staged walkouts at two separate facilities.
This first-ever multi-warehouse walkout came as Amazon apparently "promised workers in Chicago full-time roles with a hiring bonus, extra pay for working Thanksgiving, and paid bereavement leave. Every promise was broken."
In addition "Workers say they are tracked during bathroom breaks and have limited paid time off, but a worker-signed petition for increased wages and safe staffing was received and ignored by Amazon."
The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has also set the dates for a second Amazon union vote in Bessemer, Alabama.
The new vote at the Alabama Amazon facility was ordered after the NLRB deemed that the company had used illegal tactics to defeat the first one.
Garment workers in Los Angeles are organizing against wage theft:
With its global tentacles of supply chain impacting workers from Dhaka to Karachi to Los Angeles, [organizer Daisy] Gonzalez says the fashion industry is predicated on harm and stolen wages. But the trillion-dollar industry and the dark shadow of its operations may soon have a reckoning.
Within the U.S., Los Angeles County is the biggest fashion manufacturing hub, where nearly 60% of garment workers are women, a majority of them Latino, followed by Asians.
A key tool for wage theft in the fashion industry is the piece-rate system, by which employers pay workers per unit of production instead of an hourly rate or a salary. While the U.S. Department of Labor espouses federal minimum wage for all hours worked for piece-rate payments as well, there are no enforceable mechanisms to guarantee this. In Los Angeles, some garment workers reported earning as low as $2.68 an hour.
Outraged by these brazen inequities impacting countless women of color, Gonzalez is now a lead member-organizer with the Garment Worker Center, a worker rights organization leading an anti-sweatshop movement to strengthen the rights of garment workers in Los Angeles. Members of GWC have fought arduous struggles against the wage theft, exploitation, and dehumanization carried out by an industry that has cashed in on the invisible labor of largely immigrant women of color. GWC was also the driving force behind SB 62, the Garment Worker Protection Act, a seminal bill the group championed in an effort to transform the lives of more than 45,000 garment workers in California.
In September, GWC members were euphoric when the bill was passed and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom. This law will now hold fashion brands and supply chains accountable for stolen wages and will outlaw the per-piece system, making way for a real minimum wage for workers. It also creates an important precedent.
And, in what is in some ways the most exciting union upsurge hitting the United States right now, Starbucks workers are getting on the union train.
Two Buffalo, New York locations became the first Starbucks outlets to successfully organize and now new drives are being announced elsewhere almost daily. These include drives in Chicago, Tennessee, Colorado, Arizona, Boston, Seattle, Florida and Cleveland
All of this coming in the wake of the astounding Striketober wave maybe, after a generation of defeat and retreat, American workers may have had enough.