By Ryan Mosgrove
Whether you were born in America or came here from elsewhere, you are told a lot of stuff about how our country works. For one, we are told that we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world; that we are very fortunate to be living where we do, and that compared to the rest of the world, it doesn’t get much better than this. We are told that in America we have freedom and democracy, and that all of our voices count. Most of all, we are told that this is the land of opportunity, that anyone can get rich and that the people that work the hardest are rewarded.
If you have ever worked a low-wage job, you know that this is not true. There is a clear division between the reality of being a low-wage worker and the way American life is presented on television. If you are a low-wage worker, chances are you don’t own a home. Instead, you either rent, live with family, or live in public housing. You probably don’t have healthcare and have to depend on free clinics for medical emergencies or are in debt as a result of hospital bills. A good portion of your paycheck goes to pay for transportation just to get yourself to and from work, and after that, the rest of your paycheck goes to paying bills. After that, you barely have enough left over to survive, let alone set money aside to lift yourself up out of this situation.
That is just your life outside of work, let alone how life is on the job. If you work a low-wage job, your entire life revolves around your job, not because you love it, but because it has to. It’s a common thing to have your boss call you and say, “We don’t need you tonight, take the night off.” But if you thought you could call them and say, “Hey I had plans tonight so I’m not coming in,” you probably wouldn’t have a job any more.
Your boss is a factor as well. No matter what they are like, they are a constant source of frustration in your life. If you are lucky, they are just painfully apathetic about what you need from them to be satisfied. If you are not so lucky, they turn your job into a war zone where they are constantly on the war path. No matter what you do, they need you to work faster, stay longer, come in earlier, smile more, and do the job better.
This is why they call it the grind. Every time you clock in, you are no longer a free agent in control of your own life and decisions: you are another piece of equipment that the boss has paid for, and they want to get their money’s worth. And this very process, of working yourself to the bone, coming home exhausted and broke, just to wake up the next day and do it all again Ð if it all goes on long enough, sooner or later there is nothing left.
This is where I was at about five years ago. I have been a low-wage worker since I first entered the work force at 17. My first job was as a dishwasher at a chain restaurant, and I washed dishes there for four years. When I would work in the dish-pit, as it is called, I was allowed to listen to headphones while I worked (as long as I kept working and stayed busy). At first this was just whatever kind of music I felt like listening to. After a while, I started to listen to music with more of a message involved in it. From there it progressed into straight-up speeches from working-class leaders of the last century and lectures about the nature of class society and eventually socialism. It was somewhat surreal, actually, once it got to this point. Because I was listening to speeches about how workers were exploited under capitalism while I was watching myself and the people around me being exploited.
This was all the convincing I needed to decide that I had had enough and I was going to do something about this situation, not just for myself, but for the people around me that were going through the same things. I started to read more about the workers’ exploitation and how it was bound up directly with capitalism, and about how workers can organize collectively to win a better standard of living. I learned that this is, in fact, the only thing that has ever made things better for working people, and that ultimately we have to get rid of capitalism altogether and replace it with socialism.
Now, it might seem like a leap to go from hating your minimum-wage job to being a socialist, but if you put yourself into the context of broader society, it makes perfect sense.
The struggle for union rights for low-wage workers might seem like an impossible task, but fights like this one have been fought before Ð and won. In the 1920s and ’30s, there were huge industries that had few or no unionized workplaces at all. At that time, they were auto workers and other manufacturing workers. These were huge industries, employing tens of thousands of workers that had no unions and virtually no rights. These industries were controlled by massive corporations that were viciously anti-union and spent millions of dollars to keep unions out.
At the time, many people considered these industries impossible to unionize, for reasons that might sound familiar to us today. These companies were owned by some of the wealthiest people in the world, who spent millions to keep unions out. The workers themselves usually didn’t have a lot of education and were considered “unskilled.” Many of these workers were immigrants, who may not have had documents, or even spoken English.
Despite all the reasons that it was “impossible” and “unrealistic,” manufacturing is considered today to have some of the strongest union trades in the nation. Workers won those unions by being bold and by arming themselves with a plan to win. By organizing meetings, strikes, general strikes, pickets, slow-downs, occupations, solidarity actions, and by sheer force of will, they won those unions, guaranteeing a living wage and a high standard of living in an industry that was considered to have some of the worst jobs in the country and to be impossible to organize.
But these fights weren’t won by people who set their sights low. Though the history books don’t like to talk about it, socialists played a huge role in leading these movements and putting them on track for success. The best and brightest union organizers of the day weren’t going around talking about “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” They were talking about how working people could organize society on their own, without the bosses. They didn’t want just a slice; they wanted the whole pie! Our generation will need to follow a similar path if we are to get out of the low-wage economy we are in now.