The world seems to be in a process of reawakening. From the remarkable uprisings in the Middle East against authoritarian regimes to protests in Wisconsin and local social justice struggles, more and more people are expressing their unwillingness to withstand conditions that are detrimental to their lives.
These conditions include the inability to make basic ends meet. The New York Times recently reported that in the U.S., “a single worker needs an income of $30,012 a year — or just above $14 an hour — to cover basic expenses and save for retirement and emergencies. That is close to three times the 2010 national poverty level of $10,830 for a single person and nearly twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.” This article shows that more U.S residents are living in poverty than federally reported.
This increase in poverty and the gradual erosion of workers’ wages and rights has been orchestrated through economic policies that value profits over people. Such policies have been particularly detrimental to workers of color. Because of past and present racially discriminatory policies in education and employment, workers of color tend to be the first fired and the most likely to face difficulties finding jobs.
The U.S. does not have a problem of scarcity or lack of money. In the past 40 years, corporations have witnessed record profits. The 28,000 wealthiest people in the U.S. make more income than 96,000,000 of the poorest. Contrary to popular rhetoric, the problem is not that poor and working people don’t work hard enough. It is that the most powerful know that living wages and full employment for all workers is not good for profit making.
More than 185,000 have been protesting in Wisconsin to preserve workers’ collective bargaining rights that have historically served workers’ interests rather than the interests of profit making. In 2006, more than a million workers (mostly Latino/a) — documented and undocumented — staged national protests called “A Day Without an Immigrant” emphasizing their unwillingness to stand for substandard wages and violence.
Locally, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center in coalition with Ithaca College’s student-led Labor Initiative Promoting Solidarity staged a community rally Friday to fight for living wages for all non-student college employees. They focused on the fact that the college dining hall employees in the bottom four positions (hired by Sodexo) make only $8.19 an hour. This is well below the living wage a worker needs to survive in Tompkins County to meet basic expenses: $11.11 an hour with health insurance. Meanwhile, Sodexo’s operating profits in 2009 were $402 million.
In times of presumed scarcity, we are encouraged to compete with each other for crumbs. But one worker’s oppression today is another worker’s struggle tomorrow. Who will join the struggle for people over profits? Will we overcome our fears to stand with the most marginalized? Will we reallocate resources at the college so workers can meet their basic family needs? Do you notice the hand that serves you?
Paula Ioanide is an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.