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Recession's squeeze teaches hard lessons about importance of workers' rights

Tuesday, November 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:38 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ordinarily, I don’t need a wake-up call to remind me of how poorly many people in America are fed and housed. I’ve spent a lifetime living with working-class people. A lot of people rely heavily on food pantries for groceries during lean times. But when it comes to housing there are no simple answers. There is a limit to the amount of subsidized housing that’s available in any community.

In this recession many unemployed people who have exhausted their benefits have had to move in with relatives in order to have a roof over their heads. But last week a woman told me that she was working two jobs and was still barely able to afford an adequate place to live. Because I had recently read a book on that subject, it set me thinking about how hard it must be for individuals with families who live in my area to survive when they work at minimum wage. The hard thing to swallow is that it is not just the unemployed who are having a hard time of it; those who are working for low wages are equally affected.

Today’s federal minimum wage for a 40-hour week would make finding housing that was both livable and affordable quite a challenge anywhere in America. When I look at the rental ads in my local papers and consider how little most working-class people earn, it’s no wonder that some people have three or four roommates. And it’s not surprising that so many people are working more than one job. In the days when I tried to make a living working in a factory at that year’s minimum wage, my budget was tight, but at least housing was much more affordable.

As a person who believes strongly in collective bargaining, I am astounded that so many believed that they could bargain as individuals and gain fair wages. I hope when this recession is over and people return to work they will they will go back to bargaining collectively. The rich people's behavior during this crisis should have proved to everybody that the concept of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer is an unworkable one. While most people would probably agree that it is morally right to pay people a living wage for their work, many will not do so unless they are forced to. We need to make the most of this miserable experience by learning all the lessons it has to teach. And certainly one of them should be that letting corporations play fast and loose with their power is no longer going to be tolerated.

I truly think that anyone who believes that the United Auto Workers put the car manufacturers out of business actually feels in his or her guts that workers are not entitled to living wages and benefits. In other words, they do not believe in a middle class. They do not believe that people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder should be allowed to improve their situation through hard work and the sharpening of their skills.

If this recession has done anything, it should have provided us with a different perspective on how our corporate leaders will behave if they are not firmly regulated. This should send a strong message to employees that without the power of the law behind them in their efforts for getting fair treatment at the hands of their employers, they will usually lose the fight.

The problem is that employers have been allowed in too many cases to make their own rules and no one has defied them. Employees know they will be fired if they try to make waves. For too long employers have behaved as if unskilled workers are dispensable and as if there are always plenty more where those came from.

Workers have never been able to feel that there was anyone with power on their side. As sad as it is, this society has little respect for those who do the hardest work. Janitors, waitresses and dishwashers are often treated as if they are inferior human beings. A while back I was dining with a businessman on his extravagant expense account and we were being served by a woman who was quite competent at her job. His complaint was that she wasn’t smiling. He couldn’t help expressing his embarrassment when I asked him how big a smile he wanted from someone earning two dollars an hour.

Our children are being programmed every day by television and the movies that people who make big salaries or are celebrities are entitled to be treated better than people who do menial tasks. The tragedy is that no one seems to object.

If we truly believe that all workers in America should be paid a fair wage, we not only need changes in the work culture, we also need to change our attitudes toward workers. Nothing in the equation will change until we do.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at nolen@iland.net.


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