Let them eat less cake

Word broke late this morning that grocery workers had reached an agreement with their employers, averting a strike after a marathon negotiating session that went past the deadline and through the night. By all accounts, it’s a deal that works for everyone.

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Much of the discussion in the days leading up to a potential strike, both in print and chatter, zeroed in on the optics of workers negotiating for the chance to earn enough to live on during a bad economy. The argument generally runs that with high unemployment, it’s greedy to negotiate for health care and retirement. In other words — because so many people are struggling, it’s inappropriate for anyone to ask for better. Instead, they should willingly accept less in fairness or, dare I say, solidarity.

It’s well documented by now all the ways the economy has twisted and turned since its collapse in 2008. The disparity between the rich and everyone else has grown — achieving “worst ever” status a year ago, and the wealthy aren’t just getting more wealthy on the books — the recovery strategies attempted have been specifically designed to provide them with more money to spend on putting people back to work and paying them better. They haven’t. They’re sitting on it.

The natural, inevitable end in this sort of scenario is that the have-nots make common cause from being on the outside looking in. That much is a given. When the wealthy and the corporate mobilize the money and messaging, it isn’t to avoid that part. It’s in the hopes of ensuring that the inevitable common cause is a common acceptance of having less, rather than a common insistence on more. Will they blame each other, or put the responsibility on those who continue to not just accumulate, but proactively hoard?

There are a couple ways to do this messaging. The most straightforward is to attack unions, accusing them of seeking benefit for members at the expense of non-members. But studies repeatedly show that a stronger union presence improves conditions for all workers, regardless of membership. Recent study shows it to be a difference of $1500 a year for all workers, union and non-union. Unions consistently serve as effective advocates for all workers and aspiring workers, an inconvenient reality for those trying to execute this wedge.

The more sinister way is what we saw start to seep into discussion of the grocery workers negotiation — that those with jobs somehow have a moral responsibility to sacrifice because others are struggling. This isn’t the only time we’ve seen it in San Diego lately — you’ve almost certainly gotten a dose of it if you’ve had the pleasure of attending one of Carl DeMaio’s pension town halls. This suggests on the notion that jobs are distributed by the benevolence of employers, so anyone getting one should accept any terms. The proof supposedly lies in how many people are unemployed. It tries to re-cast the whole point of working by implicitly arguing that the standard is no longer being able to support yourself, but rather whether you are nominally employed. ‘Not enough’ is obviously preferable to ‘none,’ but ‘not enough’ is, well… still not enough. This is an argument that spreading around the struggle more should trump reducing the struggle, and it directly refutes the notion that people earn their jobs and earn their compensation.

This notion goes hand in hand with all the capital that potential employers are sitting on. Tax breaks, credits and incentives have piled up for years begging for more hiring, but it’s currently in the better interest of employers to lean on good old supply and demand, seek to starve the market of jobs in order to force more concessions from their employees. It’s two sides of the same coin: Withhold jobs from the market, then criticize those who want the opportunity to earn an actual living from their jobs.

The knee-jerk reaction from the upper class is often to term any sort of effort by everyone else to obtain enough to live on “class warfare.” It’s been getting a lot of use recently. It works because it marries ominous Marxist undertones with not actually meaning anything specific. But of course, the existing economic current isn’t static. As Joe Klein put it way back in 2008, “We have had 30 years of class warfare, in which the wealthy strip-mined the middle class. The wealth has been ‘spread’ upward.” It’s only ‘warfare’ now insofar as there’s the slightest effort to push back. What’s particularly stark in local cases like pension reform or debate over grocery worker negotiations is that the galling demands are simply to not give up even more, to have to right to negotiate for the opportunity to earn enough to live on.

That’s how far it’s gone. We aren’t even having a discussion about whether people are able on a person-by-person basis to earn a living. We’ve now reached the point where the edge of the Overton Window now demands a discussion about whether it’s reasonable for jobs to even provide the opportunity to earn basic living expenses. Somehow, the argument that it’s selfish for workers to negotiate for the possibility of such jobs even existing to begin with is being pushed seriously into our public debate.

UFCW negotiations were dramatic and provided a nail-biter, but ultimately also demonstrated how negotiations can work just fine for all involved. Similarly, the City of San Diego negotiated with public employee unions, working out major cost reductions that faced the realities of budget challenges without abandoning the notion that jobs still need to provide an opportunity to earn an actual living. Getting this debate back in focus is crucial to real solutions going forward.

by Lucas O’Connor

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One Response to Let them eat less cake

  1. As a grocery buyer and unemployed college graduate, I see two problems with the arguments made by the UFCW.

    First, they make precious few arguments for why I should support them specifically. I understand healthcare and a livable wage are important, but since I don’t have them, why should I support their fight to keep theirs? I don’t hear it coming from the UFCW, at least not on KUSI *wink*. Would the UFCW use dues or other assets to open a store for consumers to go to to avoid the either shuttered or scabbing major chains? There’s plenty of space around to open the worker’s nirvana store they must imagine. Modern unions offer half hearted measures that actually seem to insist in their vilification by management/owners. If we’re all in this together, then we had better be, but UFCW needs to convince me why.

    Second, it isn’t fair to say that management’s position is “that jobs are distributed by the benevolence of employers, so anyone getting one should accept any terms.” Jobs obviously aren’t, but we’re coming to a point where some of them simply aren’t necessary. Technology is rendering many of these types of jobs obsolete. If labor wants to keep everyone around, as they well might/should, then they have to make the case for it. What can a cashier do that I can’t do at a scanner? Does it save me time? Does it give me privacy about the trans-fats I’m buying?

    Labor needs to make the case. If they can do that, we should all get onboard. Lucas is right that the class warfare is only going one way: the rich obliterate the rest of us. But if you can’t stop the infighting down here, what good is “labor?”

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