If you want to know the state of the economy and politics today, the week of Labor Day of 2014, there are two numbers you need to know: $3.4 million and $15.
On Wall Street, America’s mighty job creators are finally reaching out to the recently-unemployed, by creating a job for ex-Rep. Eric Cantor. He’ll be a new vice chairman for the investment firm Moelis & Co.
How nice that they’re going to take a chance on a guy with no experience in the industry, and start him off at a decent living wage:
Moelis will pay him an annual $400,000 base salary … Cantor also received a $400,000 cash payment and $1 million in restricted stock that will vest after his third, fourth and fifth anniversaries with the company. In 2015, Cantor will receive a minimum incentive payment of $1.2 million in cash and $400,000 in restricted stock, the filing said.
This $3.4 million payday — which doesn’t count a stipend to cover the cost of a Manhattan apartment — shouldn’t be considered entirely as compensation for all the grueling work he’s going to do for the firm. It’s more like a reward for services rendered over his congressional career.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, fast food workers across the country are walking out and demonstrating today. They’ll be active in 150 cities and they’re enlisting help from home health aides, adding another fast-growing low-wage sector to their coalition. They’re demanding better working conditions, the right to organize, and a wage of $15 an hour.
This is the other side of the economy that gave Eric Cantor his $3.4 million: millions of jobs that offer low pay, little chance of advancement, and unreliable schedules. Sometimes, they’re not even getting paid for the hours they do work. American workers have less power relative to their employers now than they’ve had in decades, and the consequence is that the share of the economy that goes to wages is dropping, even as they’re told to be grateful to have a job at all.
The usual rhetoric about wealth and poverty in this country look pretty thin up against the raw realities faced by low-wage workers. Does anyone actually think that a home health care aide, making $21,000 a year by caring for sick and elderly people, is working a hundred times less hard than Eric Cantor will, doing whatever he’ll be doing? Would anyone argue that the work Eric Cantor will be doing is a hundred times more important?
You’ll hear a lot of whining tomorrow about how fast food workers are demanding too much, that they’re being unrealistic or don’t deserve more than what they’re getting now. If the minimum wage is too high, you’ll hear, where’s the incentive to work harder? Perhaps these pundits could try to run these arguments past Maria Fernandes, the New Jersey woman who died sleeping in her car last month after pulling an overnight shift at one of her three jobs.
Fast food workers don’t have an option beyond taking their case out into the streets. The political process is badly failing them, because it’s incredibly unresponsive to working people. “Social safety net programs are stingier, business regulations are flimsier, and tax policies are more regressive than they would be if our politicians came from the same mix of classes as the people they represent,” writes Nick Carnes. And the problem isn’t getting any better, as Supreme Court decisions have eroded any constraints on the flow of money into politics.
Eric Cantor spent his career buttering up wealthy donors, meeting with wealthy lobbyists for powerful industries, and writing policies to their specifications. All along, he knew that at the end of the road he’d have a chance to join the ranks of the people on whose behalf he’s been working (albeit earlier than he expected). Cantor’s new $3.4 million job is a hearty thank-you from the constituents he really cared about. And it’s a strong signal to other politicians of what’s in it for them if they act like Cantor.
The fast food workers themselves may as well be frozen beef patties and fryer oil for all it matters to Cantor and politicians like him. That’s why they need to speak out on their own behalf.
Nowhere is the wealth bias of our political structure clearer than in attitudes and policy towards workplace organizing. Rich Yeselson pointed out in a Labor Day interview that:
in no other advanced country is the entire political economy as relentlessly opposed to unionization as it is here. The U.S. has the most hostile anti-union management/ownership class, and corresponding conservative politicians and media to assist it, in the advanced world.
Anti-union activity is flourishing billion dollar consulting business. Laws to fight it are toothless. Today, decades after the National Labor Relations Act became law, Republicans don’t accept its basic legitimacy—and do everything they can to undermine the NLRB.
The right to organize and to collectively bargain is at the heart of the fast food worker protests. It really, really matters — and not just to individual workers’ paychecks (though it matters quite a bit there). Advocating for your own rights on the job, where you spend so much of your time, is a training ground for advocating for your rights everywhere. Union membership and activism gives people the hands-on experience of wielding power to improve their lives, especially for people traditionally excluded from power. That experience translates directly to the political process. In short, the principles of workplace organizing are the principles of democracy. The erosion of collective bargaining doesn’t just create economic inequality — it creates political inequality. If you’re worried about people being disengaged, disconnected, cynical or despairing, you need to be worried about collective bargaining and worker rights.
The state of the economy is so drastic that you’re starting to hear things like “libertarian populism” and other conservative responses to inequality. Proponents suggest that the only concentration of power we need to worry about comes from elections, and that the only inequality we need to worry about is distortion created by government. Businesses buying favorable policies aren’t the problem: it’s the regulations on their behavior that force them to throw money into lobbying and elections. A freer market will give everyone what they deserve, and if you don’t like your sub-poverty wage you can quit. This abstract theory has absolutely no relevance to the people walking away from cash registers, mop buckets and deep-fryers today.
Fast food workers have a real sense of how hard they are working for such little reward. They know what the minimum wage gets them, and it’s not enough.
Meanwhile, the right-wing ideology common among the hyper-rich suggests that the minimum wage is actually just a clever ploy to clear a path for fascism.
It’s insane that politicians are way more likely to hear, and believe, the latter perspective than the former. But it really does constrain policy — and as Sarah Jaffe puts it, “working people are tired of waiting for Congress to decide which side it’s on.”
So if you’re looking for courage or hope the week of Labor Day, don’t look to elected officials who are angling their way towards a Cantor-esque payout. Look to the cooks and cashiers who are risking their jobs to try and get enough to live on.