The End of Low Wage Work

by Margaret Kimberley, published on Black Agenda Report, May 12, 2021

The combination of unemployment and additional stimulus support has made staying home a better economic decision than working for peanuts under stressful conditions.

“The opportunity to hear why workers make a logical choice is never heard.”

The latest popular lament in the United States is not about how the people suffer under a predatory system. In usual fashion, the people themselves are turned into villains when they refuse to acquiesce to their oppression.

Low wage workers have made the rational decision to take a break. Why shouldn’t they? They have no safety net, no guarantee of housing or health care or child care or transportation. The combination of unemployment and additional stimulus support has made staying home a better economic decision than working for peanuts under stressful conditions.

One would think that employers in retail and restaurants are the victims. The corporate media repeat endlessly that they can’t find workers but don’t tell us why this situation has taken place. The opportunity to hear why workers make a logical choice is never heard. The result is more right wing propaganda masquerading as news.

Even worse, workers are now being punished because they refuse to knuckle under. Montana and South Carolina have chosen to forgo federal unemployment support in an effort to force people back into low wage jobs. Montana’s governor  said, “We need to incentivize Montanans to reenter the workforce.” His brilliant plan is to give up the additional $300 per week and instead give $1,200 just once. South Carolina’s governor  is competing in the cruelty olympics, complaining about “dangerous federal entitlements” and cutting off money to people who need it the most.

“Workers are now being punished because they refuse to knuckle under.”

These servants of corporate interests have reason to worry. There are signs that workers have had enough. Employees in a Maine Dollar General  store walked out and explained that the low pay and business model of being overworked was no longer worth it to them.

It is a positive change to see workers take a little bit of advantage of the system. The system takes advantage of them often enough. Discount stores like Dollar General are the fastest growing retail outlets in the country. They hire as few workers as possible, wrongly classify workers as managers in order to exempt them from overtime protection, and regularly engage in wage theft. It is little wonder that the unemployed have decided to stand down.

They should be supported by everyone else and their efforts should be part of political demands made to the supposedly less evil democrats. These positions would be filled if wages were higher and working conditions were better, and no one should be confused about that fact. Any anger should be directed at the employers who bend the law to favor themselves and to the politicians who do their bidding. The workers who fight back as best they can should not be the targets of criticism.

“Any anger should be directed at the employers.”

Complaints and demands should be directed at the members of congress who claim to be progressives. Instead of joining the pro Joe Biden propaganda they should confront him and the rest of the neoliberals and make good on the image they have created for themselves. If Biden is truly “transformational” now is the time for him to prove it.

Real political transformation is needed but unlikely to happen at this juncture. The lesser evil crowd won’t do more than they are doing now. Neither will the people who covered for them and spoke of “moving them left” and “holding feet to the fire.” The catastrophe of low wage work is the end result of years of collaboration between the ruling classes and political leadership in both major parties.

Hopefully these jobs will remain unfilled when the unemployment runs out. The Dollar General workers in Maine put up a sign which read, “Google ‘general strike’ and learn how we can take our power back!” The refusal to go back to bad pay and unfair conditions is a kind of strike but it can’t end when the money is cut off.

The restaurants allowed to pay less than the minimum wage to tipped workers and the wage stealing retailers should fear that these bad jobs will go unfilled. The moment is ripe for a general strike but that means organizing, political education, and resistance. The people stocking shelves and flipping burgers can’t resist on their own. At the very least the rest of us should counter the vilification and fight efforts to kick them while they are down.

Everyone in this country is likely to end up in the same predicament of precarity and disposability. We may not know how to call a general strike, but we should know which side to choose in this struggle.


Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere.  Her new book, “Prejudential“, looks at the history of US Presidents treatment of people of color.  She maintains a frequently updated blog as well at patreon.com/margaretkimberley and she regularly posts on Twitter @freedomrideblog.   She is a member of the Administrative Committee of the United National Antiwar Movement.  Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com

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