Photo by Chris Long / Unsplash

America is on Strike for Basic Dignity

The Working Class has had Enough with Rising Inequality

Sam Chavez
Sam Chavez

Table of Contents

Weโ€™ve talked quite a bit about the rampant inequality in these modern times. Just this week, CNBC announced that 10% of the wealthiest Americans own 89% of all U.S. stocks.

Just another example of how the deck is stacked in the favor of the ultrawealthy.

And so it should come as no surprise that workers are sticking up for themselves fighting for a living wage, basic benefits, and work-life balance.

This past week, we had several major worker strikes (& almost strikes):

  1. Thousands of John Deere workers went on strike protesting the flat wages despite growing revenue
  2. IATSE, the union that represents Hollywoodโ€™s blue-collar workers (think camera operators and lighting technicians) were set to strike Monday but reached a deal just in time
  3. 1,400 Kellogg cereal workers went on strike for the first time in 50 years when workers demanded better benefits
  4. 2,000 hospital workers in Buffalo, New York
  5. 450 steelworkers in Huntington, West Virginia
  6. A one-day walk-off of 2,000 telecommunications workers in California

โ€œThe company is reaping such rewards, but weโ€™re fighting over crumbs here.โ€ - Chris Laursen, a worker at Iowa-based John Deere plant

Beyond the Great Resignation

The Great Resignation has been thrown around as a new buzzword, but there is something deeper going on. Yes, it is true that millions of American residents are quitting their jobs this year (I, for one, quit back in December), but have we stopped to ask why?

The โ€˜essential workerโ€™ was coined at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. It sounded heroic. It was all about solidarity.

But solidarity for what?

Solidarity to keep the upper and middle class happy during the pandemic. So that our food remained on the table. So we could get the care and goods we needed. It was a way to keep the harsh realities of the pandemic away from the eyes of the upper/middle class.

So how were these essential workers rewarded for their solidarity?

  • Flat wages below the poverty line
  • Limited PPE to protect themselves from a deadly virus
  • Zero mental health support at a time when it is needed most
  • No support for child care while schools were remote
  • Abusive customers screaming about mask mandates
  • No bonuses after record profits from some industries

Itโ€™s no wonder our workers are fed up.

The federal minimum wage has not budged from $7.25/hour (a mere $15,080 per year) for 12 years, but prices are 17% higher today. (have you heard about inflation lately?)

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Even if Congress stood up to Kyrsten Sinema to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour wage, youโ€™d still be earning less than $32,000 a year.

That is no way to live.

The truth is asking why the Great Resignation is happening is a threat to the powers that be. If we really look at the reality, it becomes clear that society needs to rewrite how we view work.

Stop Blaming Workers and Fix the Issues

The common narrative that has dated back to the Reagan Era is that low-income workers are โ€œlazy.โ€ They donโ€™t โ€œdeserveโ€ a living wage because of this.

This is an utterly false narrative that only serves to keep the powerful powerful and the poor poor.

Have you ever actually been in a low-wage job? Have you experienced crippling pain from trying to hit your quota in the number of Amazon orders youโ€™ve boxed up? Have you worked 14+ hour days on a film set without a break?

Take the John Deere strikes. Salaried office workers are being forced by the company to go and work the factory floor. Just on the first day, an ambulance was called and a salaried worker crashed a tractor on the factory floor. And thatโ€™s the point the strikers are making. These essential jobs are highly technical and skilled. A random person off the street canโ€™t take on these jobs without training.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed us to get out of our comfort zone, look at the world differently, and expose the uncomfortable things about our society. Low-wage work is at the top of the list. Seeing how essential the work really proves that essential work should be livable work. If these workers and their jobs are so essential, then they should be paid that way.

Reframing to Win with Narrative

And that leads to the final point, this year, workers are taking back the narrative and saying enough is enough.

For decades, the Reagan talking points have taken over and reduced low-wage workers to an awful (& usually racist) stereotype. Through this stereotype lens, we lose out on the humanity of these workers. These are our fellow human beings who are stocking our grocery shelves, preparing our food, and shipping our packages.

Many would have us believe that we canโ€™t pay essential workers more without skyrocketing prices but donโ€™t consider the other costs factored in like say CEO pay (which has grown by 1,322% since 1978) or stock buybacks (in 2018 alone, companies purchased $806 billion in buybacks).

So before someone starts jabbering on about how itโ€™s impossible to raise wages, just remember:

We are humans first and workers second.

Take Democratic messaging expert, Anat Shenker-Osorio, recent tweet.

She has a good point about how we frame โ€œpaid leave.โ€ Paid leave is really โ€œpaid time to care.โ€ Reframing a simple term can change the way we view the issue and the people behind the issue. It humanizes it. Your mind takes you to what is common in your life. Care is universal. We all want to have the time to care for the ones we love.

This simple reframe also puts your humanity first and work second. We were all born to live in this world, not to just work in this world. As soon as we as a society start to recognize that life is first and work is second, we can begin to see each otherโ€™s humanity.

So next time youโ€™re talking with friends or family about labor rights (itโ€™s totally the typical dinner conversation, right?!), think about the words that you use to frame the issues and try to humanize how you speak about workers and labor rights.

Take Action

Luckily, this is something that you can practice in your everyday life to build a movement to reframe.

  • Reframe the Message: You can start reframing the message in your everyday life! Push back on dehumanizing language and begin to frame labor and workersโ€™ rights in human terms.
  • Read: The PRO Act is a landmark worker empowerment legislation that this Congress has a chance of passing. Read more about how it supports workers and call your Senator to push for its passage.
  • Read: Want to learn more about unions and the history of unions? Check out the California Labor Federations simple guide to unions.
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Sam Chavez

Sam is a writer, strategist, and curious human. She founded the roots of change agency in 2020. Sam is a queer, white, LatinX activist whoโ€™s passionate about a livable planet & equitable societies.


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