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The WMail Newsletter Essays
Volume V - Issue #46: September 2004

"A Living Wage"

        When I served in Vietnam, back in 1968, we had an IBM 1401 computer (huge configuration: 16k of iron-ring memory) in an air-conditioned trailer at Bien Hoa airbase. Part of the deal was hiring locals to do certain jobs, such as our two keypunch 'girls'. They taught me some basic Vietnamese; I taught them about marshmallows & peanut butter (from 'care packages' sent from home). When work was quiet, we chatted, mostly so they could practice their English – in hopes of getting higher-paying jobs.
        They commented one time about how much money all the American GIs had, and even then an intuitive economist, I came up with a good explanation for them:
        American keypunch operators were paid $2.50 per hour (then about 50% above the minimum wage) and it cost $2.50 to go to a movie in America. I knew the girls were paid 28 piasters an hour [about 25 cents U.S.], and asked how much it cost to see a movie. Their reply was 25 piasters to see a movie off-base, and of course they understood the principle of the relative economies, and we all went back to our work.

        That was then. So: How come the U.S. minimum wage today in America is $5.15 and it costs $10-$11 to see a movie?
        The obvious, general answer is, of course, that the Oligarchy {see WMail Issue #42} wants it that way.
        The Oligarchy wants it that way because U.S. workers sentenced to poverty and indentured servitude cannot afford to take time off to unionize or to 'vote the bastards out'; because workers having two jobs (or three part-time jobs) are too tired to protest having no benefits; because traveling to work on growling buses prevents family life and increases the difficulty in getting an education; because the lack of family 'quality time' delivers yet another incompetent generation, one without the courage to refuse work that is illegal, dangerous, and-or underpaid.

* *          * *          * *          * *

        The Oligarchy wants things the way they are now, their intention is still to move toward absolute slavery. Here are a few examples of how life really is for the American worker:

••      The continuing increase of shipping business at the Ports of Los Angeles [San Pedro] and Long Beach has finally forced the nepotistic I.L.W.U. longshoreman's union to open up 3000 temporary positions – for which they received a half-million application forms from all over the U.S., a symptom of the failure of Bush administration policies to create jobs (or even to stem the loss of jobs).

••      Note also that the shipping increase at all U.S. ports is mostly IN-bound goods, a symptom of our ever-expanding trade imbalance. The U.S. manufactures far less than before and we continue to import more goods than we export – partially because the jobs transferred offshore pay wages at pennies on the dollar compared to U.S. workers, so that customer service employees in India who replaced U.S. workers cannot afford to buy U.S. products.

••      Per a recent report from an on-going White House study, nearly two-thirds of married mothers with children under six are working. [2002 data]
        "Half the working poor [in America] are working mothers. It is time to be ashamed."
                — David K. Shipler [quoted in WMail Issue #43]

••      The U.S. Department of Labor in April published regulatory changes to take effect August 23rd, the result of which is to strip away overtime pay for over 6 million workers. The original proposal would have affected 8 million workers, but widespread public opposition forced a reduction in the final effect.
        The regulation change alters overtime criteria to any work done beyond an 80-hour two-week pay period, effectively eliminating daily overtime pay (beyond 8 hours per workday), except in such states as California that have legislated overriding laws. (One of Gray Davis's first projects upon being elected Governor of California was to restore daily overtime pay – in effect January 2000 – which had been eliminated by his Republican predecessor Pete Wilson.)
        The U.S. House Representatives, however, lodged a rare non-partisan protest by a 223 to 193 vote on September 9th blocking the regulation change. Dubya may still veto that bill (though probably not before the election).

••      In June 2004, candidate John Kerry announced his plan to raise the federal minimum wage from its present $5.15 per hour to $7.00 per hour by 2007.

••      Adjusted for inflation, today's federal minimum wage has shrunk to its lowest level since 1949. Or as Howard Dean said in 2003: "Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage has decreased 38% since 1968."

••      A year's pay at minimum wage is $10,712 – before taxes.

••      The U.S. Census Bureau definition of poverty for a family of four is income of $18,810 per year or less – which is $9 an hour. All of 36 million Americans – twelve-plus percent of the population – live in poverty today [almost exactly the population of California!] and 13 million of them are children. ['No Child Left Behind' starts when exactly?]
        In California, 4.6 million people were living in poverty in 2003, which is 13.4% of the state. Children living in poverty in California amount to 1.7 million, which is 18.6%, a full percentage point higher than the national average.
        Other useful Census Bureau 'poverty thresholds' are: single, under 65 years of age: $9,573 [just $1,139 under minimum wage]; for two people under 65 with no kids, the figure is $12,321 – so minimum wage is below the poverty line for a couple on one salary!.
        Two full-time jobs at minimum wage [at $21,424 before taxes] barely keeps a family of four above the poverty line – the official term is 'subsistence living'.

••      Twenty percent of the people of Mexico live in 'extreme poverty', which is defined as living on less than one dollar a day. [statistic from 2002 study]

••      "[Americans] work more hours than workers in any other industrialized country except South Korea."
                — Program on WorkLife Law at American University Washington College of Law

••      The California Legislature has challenged Gov. Arnold by passing a pile of laws and putting them on his desk for signature [or not]. Among them is Assembly Bill 2832 which increases the state minimum wage from the present $6.75 per hour by fifty cents on 1 January 2005, and again to $7.75 per hour on 1 January 2006.
        Big problem for Arnold: He must either sign this bill and offend the business interests who assume that he is bought-and-paid-for =OR= veto the bill, which will offend millions of hard-working voters. [Arnold must run for re-election in 2006.]
        News item 18 September: Arnold vetoed the bill.

••      Other retail chains have learned well from Wal-Mart's example: I discovered recently that all new-hires at the Office Depot store chain are part-time, scheduled for either three days per week for 8 hours =OR= 5 days per week for 6 hours, and so have no benefits whatsoever. (California law requires standard benefits for employees who work over 30 hours per week on a regular basis.)

••      The recently announced Forbes 400 Richest Americans list shows a combined net rise in worth of $45 billion, which is a mere $112,500,000 per person. Did you get a raise this year?

* *          * *          * *          * *

        The old rule of thumb, before wages and benefits were reduced and-or eliminated for the majority of U.S. workers, was that 25% of a month's pay went to taxes, 25% went for rent, 25% went for living expenses, and the remaining 25% was to be set aside for the future – savings & investments, retirement, schooling, improvements to the house, an education fund for the kids' tuition, etc.
        But wages of $10,712 per year on minimum wage, minus taxes, leaves $8,034. Such a wage provides only $223 a month for rent, which is impossible. So such a worker rents a hovel wherever he/she can, and then lives on whatever is left. There is NO money for the future on minimum wage, and no time for a life while working two jobs.
        Thus, the 'American Dream' is virtually unattainable for the majority of the population, the Working Poor and below. The 'American Dream' is dead.
        These workers may never own a new car; they will certainly never buy a house. With so many mothers working full-time jobs, with fathers working two jobs, with 2 to 3 jobs per family, their kids are unattended and often left to fend for themselves or penned up in some below-standard child care corral like the herd animals they are expected to become.
        These workers do not share in the revenue that they produce with the the labor of their bodies and minds. They have NO benefits – overtime, health insurance, equity – and they live in abject fear that their next paycheck envelope might contain a pink slip or a cutback, or even a 'take it or leave it' arbitrary reduction in pay.
        The Oligarchy wants it this way.

* *          * *          * *          * *

        The Working Minds Manifesto of two WMail issues back includes the statement that anything below $10 per hour [in the U.S.] is not a Living Wage. I have since decided that the figure should be $12 per hour in high-ticket locations such as Los Angeles County and New York City.
        While only a partial solution, the stand for such a Living Wage will be a long- and hard-fought goal. The Oligarchy broke the supermarket strike here in Southern California – the unions ended up with less than the original offer from the owners, and the three major grocery chains all lost money: customers shopped at CostCo and WholeFoods and many have not gone back to the majors. And the Oligarchy refuses to suffer any such loss: grocery prices continue to go up – wages go down, prices go up, here we go 'round the mulberry bush.

        With such an increased minimum wage at McDonald's, prices need not go up: Joan Kroc's recent death revealed the billions of dollars that she gave in charity in her will. Well, duh: pay a Living Wage to employees and fast-food workers would not need handouts from charity. With a Living Wage, full-time workers at Wal-Mart would not qualify for welfare – nor would they need to.
        With such a Living Wage, parents could spend time with their children & families, they could save up for a car, they could move out of the over-priced one-bedroom tenement apartment (owned by the Oligarchy), and even think about sending one or more kids to college, to bootstrap the family out of poverty or 'subsistence living', and up from Working Poor to Working Class and even to the Middle Class.
        With such a Living Wage, the economy would perk up in every nook and cranny, as workers bought the products that they made or managed or sold, as they moved from K-Mart to J.C. Penney to Macy's and beyond, as they allowed themselves time off to vacation across America, spending time out-of-doors on weekends, or taking {ohmigod!) enrichment courses not designed to enhance survival.
        With such a Living Wage, neighbor could meet neighbor, and workers would have time to unify around non-wage matters – workplace safety, ethical business practices, a clean environment, schools that educate, crime prevention. Families could give time to the old and the lonely, maybe reinstitute the nuclear family.
        These are matters that workers who live in abject fear for survival cannot see as their right. The Oligarchy wants it that way.

* *          * *          * *          * *

        The steps necessary to take back control of their/our lives is precisely what will give the Working Poor the realization that they have every right to expect access to the mythical American Dream.
        The Oligarchy's power exists only wherever the masses have surrendered their Locke-ian natural rights, under the pressure of propaganda delivered by the Culture-Structure at the behest of this world's Sauron, the villainous Oligarchy.
        The supermarket unions broke under that pressure. When next will we see the unity and courage that it will take to wrest another stolen right back, see action taken to undermine the Oligarchy's stolen power, see Individuals rising up to force the Oligarchy to topple, like a statue of Stalin or Saddam?

        Survival looks like your harried and fearful life.
        The Working Mind game is to stand up, to stand in the face of the Culture-Structure.
        The Revolution exists when you say "No! No more of this grovelling!"

        And our next chance is in November – thus the topic of next month's WMail is 'Dumping Dubya'.

[copyright 2004 by Gary Edward Nordell, all rights reserved]

        David K. Shipler is author of "The Working Poor" [Knopf 2004]

        For the full contents of this issue of the free 'WMail' exine, click here.

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