December 11, 2013
By Barbara Kestenbaum
As a person who wants justice to come to the American worker, I was proud to stand with Walmart employees in Secaucus, NJ, on November 29, one of 1500 “Black Friday” protests held across the country. The solidarity of labor backing the Walmart workers was expressed by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka:
“The AFL-CIO has committed the full weight of the labor movement to support these brave, determined Walmart workers.”
In actions that are unprecedented in Walmart history, its low-wage earners are showing their justified outrage at being made to work for pay that no person can survive on. For example, Elaine Roizer, one of the protesters, told me:
I have a family to support. I could barely make ends meet. Fifteen dollars an hour is not asking for too much. I went on strike for a day. So they fired me. It’s hard. It’s very hard. I’m out here protesting not just for myself. I’m here for all the people who come after me.
I respect Ms. Roizer’s courage, and her showing that she has true fellow feeling is admirable. She speaks for a growing number of women and men in America who, this past year, have taken part in demonstrations and strikes against the titans of the fast food industry including Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell. These huge corporations have made billions from the very people who are paid wages below the poverty level, forcing them often to take second jobs and resort to food stamps to feed their families. Recently, on their company website, McDonalds had this chilling advice for their underpaid workers: “Breaking [your food] into small pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.” It was recommended that their employees find a second job if they are unable to live on their salaries. And in a Canton, Ohio Walmart, there was a bin with a sign for its own employees, inviting them to “Please donate food items here so Associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.”
Men and women, rightly furious at their miserable pay, represent a long history of protests by American workers. They include miners who toiled twelve hours a day underground digging coal, farm workers bent over from tilling and harvesting in the sweltering sun, men who did the back-breaking labor building our nation’s railroads, and women in sweatshops who slaved for pennies a day. As industries in America were unionized, workers in America were able to earn more than subsistence wages; in fact, unions gave rise to a prosperous middle class.
What the Walmart workers are now insisting on is in keeping with what every human being deserves: a chance to earn a decent, livable wage; to put nourishing food on the table for one’s children; to educate and clothe them; to pay for medicine; and to provide a comfortable home.
Walmart, McDonalds and other fast food chains will not willingly raise the pay scales of their employees because every additional nickel they pay a worker takes away from their profits. These companies are in the business of making money for their top executives and shareholders, not making sure they pay their workers well.
I’ve learned that the thirst for profits is the driving force behind every corporation in America, and it has made for massive injustices. In an issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss explains:
“Eli Siegel showed that the profit motive—the seeing of a hoping, feeling human being in terms of how much you can get out of him and how little you can give him—is contempt.
“People’s discontent about work includes, along with the sheer pain of not making enough money, a terrific anger at being seen with contempt. People hate being seen as mechanisms to squeeze as much profit as possible from and to eliminate if the squeezing doesn’t fare so well. There is this feeling across America, “I am more than that, for God’s sake! A human being is more than that!”
Mr. Siegel showed that the most important question in economics—one which must be answered with thorough honesty—is this: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Workers at Walmart, in fast food, and elsewhere are saying, no more: what we deserve is a living wage! That is why they are out in the streets demonstrating, and we hail them!