Thursday, April 24, 2014

Flat Wage USA: The More Things Change, They More They (Fill In The Blank)...

I've always held vivid memories of this image, which I remember seeing in Otto L. Bettmann's book, The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!  While some critics accused Bettmann of going overboard with his debunking of the Gilded Age, published in 1974, the book's most cogent points focus on the glaring income inequalities that characterized the era. That's why this particular image and its caption ("Corporate greed octopus gobbles up freight for Great Railroad while unemployed handlers look on") remains so haunting, and so compelling, more than a century later.

I felt inspired to start this post after doing some research on Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome (1911), of all things. The title character's frustration with his limited resources is an important subtext of the story, which focuses on his failed attempts to start a new life with his lover, Mattie, outside the confines of his marriage.  In researching the story, I came across numerous references to The Working Girls Of Boston (1884), which marked a serious attempt by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor's to document female workers' conditions.

Suffice to say, the conditions these "working girls" endured were horrendous -- including arbitrary bosses, cramped work areas, lengthy schedules, little time off and poor ventilation -- so we need not belabor the point here. In 1880, the bureau reported that the average working girl in Boston earned $269.07 per year. However, once she finished subtracting $261.30 for necessities (food, clothing, shelter and medical care), she took home a whopping $7.77 in discretionary income...and you wonder why everyone frowns so heavily in those 19th century sepia-toned photographs!

While nobody's suggesting that we're back in the Gilded Age -- actually, most wiseguys like yours truly argue that we're at Roaring Twenties levels of inequality -- it's no stretch to suggest that Americans are faring poorly overall in the Discretionary Income & Savings Sweepstakes. One point that the Suze Ormans of the world overlook in all their endless lectures to the groundlings -- y'know, "waste not, want not, why buy that latte when you can put it away on a condo, yada-yada-yada" -- is that, after 30-plus years of flat wages, people have little or no money left to save.

One indicator of this trend is evident from a survey cited in the following Huffington Post article (see link below, or click the actual survey link for the full gory details). The figure that leaps out is this one: about 25 percent of the adults surveyed by Bankrate between June 6-9, 2013, had no cash reserves for emergencies, while roughly half said they had three months or less of funds -- well shy of the six months that experts recommend. By contrast, 72 percent of those making $75,000 per year or more had at least three months' of emergency savings, compared to 35 percent making less than that sum.

Granted, it's a small survey pool, but those are stark figures, by any measurement. The frustration is fully evident from the comments of interviewees like Kim Norton, who told the Huffington Post: "I rob Peter to pay Paul; I don't spend my money frivolously on crap; I just make sure my kids have what they need. I get really wound up thinking about how you just can't get ahead." That does seem rather unlikely for someone working "part time as a research coordinator through a temp agency" (emphasis ours), as the story suggests -- need we say more?

In many ways, that little tidbit aptly sums up where we are now, along with the never-ending parade of dubious ads from crappy for-profit colleges, gold buying shops and structured settlement purchasing outfits like JG these images speak to an economy in recovery? The jury's still out on that one, we suspect.

If you're like the great majority, you're probably writing enough checks to float a raft -- noting which companies run to the bank immediately, versus which ones wait a couple days, or even a week, God forbid -- while you pray for the roof not to cave in. Needless to say, though, don't expect any lift from the political classes, because they're having too much fun to care about helping the groundlings to any meaningful degree.

As we've stated here previously, the few measures that the Obama administration has proposed -- a year-long mortgage moratorium here, begging the House of Representatives to extend unemployment there -- have been too weak, timid or half-hearted to benefit people on a massive scale. And, in real terms, whatever Obama propounds now will essentially come too little and too late, since those guys in colonial drag (The Tea PartyRepublicans, basically) have no incentive to make those dreams happen. As the old joke goes, there's a reason why second-term presidents suddenly start talking up their foreign policy accomplishments.

What's often missed in these debates, however, is that these yawning disparities bear the hallmarks of policy. In Washington, access is power, and you can tell who wields it by who's actually sitting at the table. It isn't the inner city resident whose neighborhood lacks a decent supermarket...or the retired firefighter whose pension isn't fully funded...or the senior citizen having to choose between food, or medicine...or the contract worker piecing shit job upon shit job together for the privilege of surviving another day, never mind another week.

As one of my close friends observes, it's as if Ronald Reagan won a seventh presidential term, because the trends that began when he arrived on the scene in 1980 -- help the rich get richer, let the poor stay poorer, hollow out what's left of the middle class -- are more firmly entrenched and noxious than ever. The jabbering continues apace, while relief for the average person seems farther away on the horizon than ever, amid continuing choruses to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps". However, as the customs man says at Heathrow Airport, "there's just one small matter": your bootstraps were cut long ago, when nobody was looking.  --The Reckoner

"Sometimes history takes things into its own hands." --Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (1967-1991)

"Consolidation becomes the fourth chapter of the next book of their history. But this opens with a vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry." -- Thomas Jefferson (A/K/A "The Guy On The Two Dollar Bill")

Links To Go (As Always...Read 'Em And Weep Some More, Eh): June 2013 Financial Security Index Charts:

Consumer Reports:
Can Singing Vikings Solve Your Cash Crunch?

The Economic Policy Institute:
A Decade Of Flat Wages:
The Key Barrier To Shared Prosperity And A Rising Middle Class

The Huffington Post:
75 Percent Of Americans Don't Have Enough Savings
To Cover Their Bills For Six Months: Survey:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Walls Come Tumbling Down: Smash The Hamster Wheel (And Stop Running So Hard In Place)

While talking with my sister last night, we found ourselves ruminating -- invariably, inevitably, involuntarily -- on why the State Of The Nation has slid so far down the proverbial hamster wheel that's left so many of us running, running and running in place...yet falling further behind. 

"When we were growing up," she said, "I remember how far you could stretch a dollar during the '70s. You could work a regular job, pay the rent and actually have something left over..." She paused for reflection.  "But not anymore."

"Well, I remember that era, too," I responded. "Back then, you didn't have the 'double wage earner' syndrome that's so prevalent now..."

"And that's before we get to the rents," said my sister, who lives in a major Midwestern city.  "You can't get anything decent under $700 a month anymore, at least not around here."

"Same story in this small burg," I said.  "I'm still shocked at the dumps that carried a $500 or $600 a month price tag...the kind of places where they should pay you to live, not the other way around."  

(Reckoner's Note: In particular, Dear Reader, I'm thinking of the rundown two-story house with the peeling blue paint and the bathroom mirror that bire a message in bright red lipstick: "I will kill you."  But I digress.)

"So what happened? I'm wondering what it's going to take..." 

"Probably another March on Washington," I responded.  "Remember all those retrospective  stories they did last year, on the '50th anniversary?" How many people showed up that day, a quarter of a million?"

"Something like that," my sister responded.  "I've seen that picture where they're all gathered..."

"We need something like that now," I said.  "Several marches on Washington, in fact -- so we get back to that late '60s, early '70s era, when people still demanded things from their leaders."

"Never gonna happen, at least not soon," my sister sighed.  "Things get taken away, and people just make do."

That's when I started thinking...

...about a news story I'd spotted on The Huffington Post, which originally triggered this broadside -- but wound up revising, in light of the above conversation.

The story focused on United Parcel Service's decision to fire 250 workers for staging a 90-minute protest in Queens, NY last February, after a 24-year employee -- and union activist -- butted heads with management over how many hours that senior employees could work.

The company fired the veteran (Jairo Reyes) on Valentine's Day, triggering the walkout  on February 26. Twenty workers were fired forthwith -- presumably, those that UPS fingered as the major instigators -- while an additional 230 will get the boot once their replacements are trained.

Let's hope that nobody among the soon-to-depart ranks lifts a finger to train anybody -- as I did, when I suspected an ex-boss of bringing in a chirpier-but-cheaper secretary to replace me. For UPS, of course, it's business as it's done in the good old USA.  As a company spokesperson informed the Huffington Post: 

"We simply cannot allow employee misconduct that jeopardizes our ability to reliably serve our customers and maintain order in our delivery operations.  For this reason, the company is releasing employees involved in the work stoppage."

Don't you love those corporate Orwellian euphemisms?  Sounds like everybody's going on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Maui...or getting an extra hour for lunch -- so they can play ping pong on the company dime.  "Why, we didn't fire them, Your Honor, nor terminate them, nor involuntarily separate them from the, Your Lordship, cross your heart -- we just released them." 

At any rate, as the union noted, this action comes from a company that rakes millions of dollars in contracts from the Big Apple -- remember, boys and girls, they want socialism for themselves, just not for the groundlings -- not to mention preferential treatment on parking fines for their trucks.

Of course, such preferential treatment doesn't translate onto the shop floor, as these choice nuggets from might suggest:

Nugget #1: "UPS is one of the worst possible places to work - ever. You always hear about the great benefits - that's because they are the only thing that is great. It is a MICRO-MANAGED company and nothing you do is ever, EVER good enough. You are treated like a number and they have no care for you as an employee whatsoever. NUMBERS, NUMBERS, NUMBERS - to hear them tell it, it's never enough - despite what the earnings and financial reports say."

Nugget #2: "Can you explain why UPS advertises jobs nonstop every day and apparently interviews/pre-interviews hundreds of people. They advertise non-stop for a center that only has 40 unloading and 40 loading doors, with just one person to a door...Why does UPS not tell people that they will unloading at a rate of 1200 packages an hour and loading at a rate of 500 per hour BEFORE they get the 'tour'."

Nugget #3: "I worked there for 5 months back in 2003-04. If you don't mind being yelled at constantly, DESPITE the fact you are working at a very high pace, then UPS is for you.

"$8.50 is the same rate they have paid for years (for unloading trucks and sorting letters and small parcels in small sort). $9.50 is for the poor schleps who load the trucks, the pressure is worse for them.

"My best memory is the 'Holiday Treat' they gave us at Breaktime. You had 10 minutes to enjoy a plate of beans and weenies...then the buzzer rang and the managers yelled at everyone to get back to work. Charming place.

"They talk about earning senority (5-6 years) and you can become a delivery driver. Look at the drivers when they arrive in the morning and you see tired, ragged drivers....resigned to their fate. UPS works them hard too."

As the cliche goes, this would seem funny if the big picture weren't so sad.  And that's when I started thinking again.

You don't have to take this crap 
You don't have to sit back and relax 
You can actually try changing it

I know we've always been taught to rely
Upon those in authority --
But you never know until you try
How things just might be --
If we came together so strongly
"Walls Come Tumbling Down" (The Style Council)

Released in 1985, this uptempo soul-pop song exemplifies an early peak of The Style Council, Paul Weller's fab post-Jam combo -- charting at #6 UK, #19 Australia, and #15 New Zeland, respectively. The song is often seen as the peak of Weller's "political" period that made itself felt on the Style Council's second UK album, Our Favourite Shop.

For further examples, see "Come To Milton Keynes," and "The Lodgers (or She Was Only A Shopekeeper's Daughter)" (one of numerous jibes at then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- who made such a perversely inspiring muse). As Weller himself has remarked: "
I had a total belief in The Style Council. I was obsessed in the early years. I lived and breathed it all. I meant every word, and felt every action. Our Favourite Shop was its culmination." Indeed it was.

With so much fatalism and passivity hanging in the air, this song comes across as a glorious reminder of what I often call "The Power Of Possibility."  When I hear it now, my memories focus on the East German regime's collapse in November 1989 -- how quickly it evaporated, once the street protests in Dresden and Leipzig gathered momentum, once people stopped believing in its ironclad authority over their lives. Would the same thing happen today on this side of the pond, I wonder?

Nobody, of course, can lay any bets. However, it's important to remember that history is peppered with countless situations like those of East Germany...or Poland (imagine if Lech Walesa had gone back to lunch that day -- they'd still have a steady diet of state-sponsored rock 'n' roll being shoved down their collective throats!)...or Egypt, with the Muburak machine seemingly poised to roll on forever and a day, just as surely as the sun came up...or the US during the '60s, when civil rights legislation finally became reality. 

The March on Washington had something to do with that outcome -- "civil rights didn't come," as I often pointedly tell people, "because the politicians thought it such a dandy idea, or felt so sorry for the downtrodden." And that brings me back to where this post started.

Are you gonna realize 
The class war's real and not mythologized 
And like Jericho - You see walls can come tumbling down!

The surest way to avoid changing any situation is to repeat -- over and over again, like some twisted version of the Rosary -- that it's not possible. That the odds are too long. That the idea itself is too bizarre for mass consumption. That you're a fool to even imagine different outcomes for yourself, your friends or the ones you love, until someone upstairs finally consents to the idea. Of course, no such approval is ever forthcoming, right?

That's because the bad guys want to keep us all jawboning forever -- keep the conversation going round and round in circles, while the quality of life continually declines for the majority of American...and any further notions of progress gurgle down the drain.  You're expected to wait your turn..and settle...and wait some more...and get older...and wait longer still...and avoid bringing up the awkward questions that might finally push the conversation in a better direction. You get the idea.

As far as I'm concerned, however, the chief value of songs like "Walls Come Tumbling Down" is their potential to jar us awake, rouse us to action, and push us into a different gear than we've been accustomed to riding.  The Style Council's output -- and, for that matter, Weller's lyric writing of this era -- is often dismissed as heavy-handed, overbearing, preachy, strident.

Possibly. Perhaps. However, there are moments in life when it's time to take off the gloves, and say what needs saying, period. Only then, it seems, will the silent majority of people feel brave enough to stand up for what's right, and raise hell accordingly.  

As Wikipedia's entry on
Our Favourite Shop notes: "All of this pessimism is countered with an overarching sense of hope and delight that alternatives do actually exist—if only they can be seen."  I couldn't have put it better myself.  --The Reckoner

Links To Go:
Business Insider: 
Here's The Story Behind The Strike That Got 250 UPS Workers Fired:

Fight Back! News: 
New York UPS Workers Strike To Protest Unjust Firing

The Huffington Post:

UPS Fires Hundreds Of Workers Who Defended Fired Colleague