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Part Time Toil, Full Time Poverty: The Changing Economic Superstructure of The America

Organizing in the service industry was considered too much trouble given the high rate of turnover. Fast food and retail was something high school and college kids did during the summer, plus there was a bit of a superiority complex from skilled labor over unskilled labor.

“In the 80’s I saw what was happening with money. I was watching it shift very quickly. I was watching the middle class go away, and I was a twenty-three year old maniac but I got it. That’s when I realized you better get Plan A,B,C,D,E,F, and G otherwise you’re gonna starve to death in The America. The America is not a place you live in, it’s a video game you survive.” --Henry Rollins: The One Decision that Changed My Life Forever

I’ve never worked a salaried job for very long. I managed a night club for few months back in ’06, and recently I received a stipend when I was a graduate assistant. (I used to joke they referred to it as a stipend because calling it a salary would be an insult to the word salary.) The rest have all been hourly jobs. Everything from $4.25 an hour in high school when I got my first job in Fast Food to my current job as a Ramp Agent, baggage handler for those of you not familiar with the airline industry. I work for an Express carrier, not Mainline so I get paid half as much even though I work for the same parent company. I’m a union member, work full time, and I’m below the federal poverty level. It’s the reality of the business I’m in.

Yesterday fast food workers in over 130 cities walked out for a day to protest for higher wages and the right to form a union. During Black Friday activists and workers participated in strikes at 1,500 locations around the country with over one hundred arrests made. What makes these protests different from the usual labor strike is they’re composed primarily of service industry workers who are considered unskilled labor. Traditionally unionized workers have come from industries that required extensive training i.e. workers who couldn’t be easily replaced. Organizing in the service industry was considered too much trouble given the high rate of turnover. Fast food and retail was something high school and college kids did during the summer, plus there was a bit of a superiority complex from skilled labor over unskilled labor. The focus, if it’s there at all from the mainstream media, will be on increasing the minimum wage, with the Right decrying it’ll destroy our economy with unions being the culprit. It’ll be a simple Left vs. Right issue with some inevitable compromise, maybe, that won’t really address the underlying systemic problem. That’s not me bring cynical. It’s just the way it is.

See, the problem is the changing superstructure of not only the American economy, but the Global economy. We’re in an age of rapidly advancing technology, and all technology is, at its core, designed to make things more efficient and to reduce cost. A Swiffer is, supposedly, cheaper, easier, and quicker to use than a mop, bucket and water. As human beings we want things to be easier, to work better. It’s not out of sloth, but part of our reasoning. It’s how we evolved as a species. Homo Sapiens outlasting Neanderthals by developing long distance hunting technology to get our food instead of sticking it with a spear comes from the same drive as Henry Ford developing the Model T assembly line. But what happens when one facet of your economic model is diametrically opposed to another value a society holds? If the goal is efficiency and the elimination of cost what happens when everything you are, the things you need to survive are derived from your vocation? We’ve been moving away from a manufacturing based economy to a service/knowledge one for decades now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the biggest areas of growth for this decade will be in the service industry, or high tech fields. Basically you’ll need to be highly skilled in technical expertise, or you can clean Baby Boomer bedpans, serve food, or fold clothes at one of the stores in the mall if it’s still around.

The future isn’t in brick and mortar places, bazaars of consumerism, but the digital marketplace. Amazon is leading the way in slowly phasing out the need for workers thanks to technology. Even though Wired is calling Amazon’s delivery drone concept “nonsense” it’s probably not too far off, and will be more efficient than the folks in brown after the bugs are worked out. That’s not counting the Kiva WALL-E drones they have in their warehouses now. Of course Amazon’s labor practices for their flesh and blood workers that still toil away in their warehouses are still pretty fucking deplorable, but they’ll be replaced at some point. It’s inevitable.

Fast food workers are striking because the service industry isn’t just for high school kids anymore. It’s what’s available to people who aren’t highly skilled and can’t enter the knowledge based economy. Service industry jobs will be the last ones to go in the Phillip K. Dick technological dystopia that’s just around the corner. With an increasing population, the uptick in life expectancy in the First World, and corporations willing to hire less employees due to a combination of technology and more people competing for available jobs something will eventually come to a head. The day will come, and right soon, that we’ll have to re-evaluate how we determine our economic worth as human beings. What happens when you can’t work because there aren’t jobs to work, or the jobs that are available you’re horribly exploited because if you quit they’ll be dozens of people who are more desperate to replace you? Healthcare, retirement, even food and shelter might become rights instead of commodities. Human beings might be defined but what they create instead of how they toil. Of course we could always just leave everything up to the whims of that mystical, mercurial god “Free Market” since that seemed to work so well for our healthcare system. Perhaps if we just leave more fruits at the altar next time…