About every thirty years for the last one hundred, a crusading journalist somewhere has gotten the same idea: Abandon the middle-class literary life (for a brief period), get a real job, gain firsthand experience in the underclass, go home and write it up.
Not surprisingly, most practitioners of the genre have been left-wing whistleblowers--notably, Jack London and George Orwell. London's 1902 book People of the Abyss chronicled the misery of urban and agricultural workers, plus the unemployed, in turn-of-the-century England. "Work as they will," he discovered, "wage-earners cannot make their future secure. It is all a matter of chance. Everything depends upon the thing happening, the thing about which they can do nothing. Precaution cannot fend it off, nor can wiles evade it."
Already a renowned writer, London entered this new world of poverty and insecurity "with an attitude of mind which I may best liken to that of an explorer." Orwell's expedition, at the time of the Great Depression, followed in London's footsteps in the same East End neighborhoods, later ending up in Paris. Published in 1933 as an autobiographical novel, Down and Out in Paris and London records the author's experiences toiling under terrible conditions as a plongeur, or restaurant dishwasher, in the bowels of a great Paris hotel. In both cities, Orwell's narrator struggles to make ends meet--just like his co-workers and fellow tenement dwellers.
A plongeur is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack. Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison. If plongeurs thought at all, they would strike for better treatment. But they do not think; they have no leisure for it.
T hree decades later, on the eve of the civil rights revolution in the United States, journalist John Howard Griffin was down and out in Dixie. His book, Black Like Me, featured the additional twist of an author trying to cross both class and racial lines. To find out, as a white, what it was like for African-Americans to live and work in the segregated South, the author darkened his skin and traveled about in the guise of what was then called (appropriately enough for Griffin) a "colored" person. Black Like Me had a great impact at the time because of the novelty of the author's assumed identity and the book's shocking (for many whites) account of the routine indignities and monstrous injustice of apartheid in America.
It took far less makeup for Barbara Ehrenreich, the well-known socialist and feminist, author and columnist, to "pass" among the mainly white working-class people she met while researching Nickel and Dimed. Between 1998 and 2000, she took jobs as a waitress and hotel maid in Florida, a nursing-home aide and a house cleaner in Maine, and a retail sales clerk in Minnesota. Her trip across the class divide did require that she temporarily leave behind most of the accoutrements of her normal existence--home ownership, social connections, professional status, "the variety and drama of my real, Barbara Ehrenreich life."
Retaining, as her private safety net, credit cards (to be used only in emergencies) and a series of "Rent-a-Wrecks" to make job-hunting easier, she set out to determine how a person with every advantage of "ethnicity and education, health and motivation" might fare in the "economy's lower depths" in "a time of exuberant prosperity."
Her attempt to "match income to expenses" on the $6-$8 an hour wages of the working poor succeeds only briefly, though--and then just barely--in Portland, Maine, where she is able to juggle two jobs at once. Like Orwell living in Left Bank penury in Paris, she quickly becomes obsessed with counting her pennies and staying within a daily budget that does not allow for any splurges or unexpected financial adversity. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of single mothers with children who've been dumped into the job market by "welfare reform," she doesn't have to worry about finding and paying for childcare while holding down a draining, low-income job (or two). Nevertheless, she ends up being defeated by the same fundamental obstacle they face: Despite much hard work, "many people earn far less than they need to live on."
"How much is that?" she asks. "The Economic Policy Institute recently reviewed dozens of studies of what constitutes a 'living wage' and came up with the figure of $30,000 a year for a family of one adult and two children, which amounts to a wage of $14 an hour." The problem is that "the majority of American workers, about 60 percent, earn less than $14 an hour," while 30 percent, according to the EPI, made $8 an hour or less when Ehrenreich joined their ranks in 1998.
At each stop on her low-wage tour, the author tests out local support services for the working poor. Not surprisingly, the things that people need most to make their lives better--health coverage, affordable housing and access to mass transit--aren't available at the agencies she visits. (Instead, she gets the occasional bag of free groceries, plus referrals for apartment rentals she can't afford.) She finds that many of her co-workers--particularly those without family support networks--lack sufficient funds for the rental deposits and one month's advance rent needed to acquire an apartment. As a result, they are forced into overcrowded, ripoff lodging arrangements at seedy residential motels, which charge by the day or week. Even trailer-park living, which Ehrenreich tried in Key West, is now prohibitively expensive in tighter local housing markets. The nation's widespread deficiencies in public transportation also limit workers' options about where they can live--and work--if they don't own a car.
Many low-end employers don't offer health insurance, of course. Even when they do, workers in places like Wal-Mart often can't afford the payroll deductions required for family or even individual coverage when their starting pay is only $7 an hour (rising to $7.75 after two years in the Minneapolis store where Ehrenreich worked). The resulting lack of preventive medical and dental care leads to a cycle of daily discomfort and, sometimes, life-threatening deprivation. The work that Ehrenreich describes in painful detail--scrubbing floors, waiting on tables, lifting Alzheimer's patients--is hard on the body. Years of it breeds myriad aches and pains, injuries and allergic reactions, which, left untreated, become a never-ending source of misery, not to mention missed work, lost income and potentially ruinous bills. As Ehrenreich notes, she held up as well as she did in several of her jobs only because she hadn't been doing them for long; without her personal history of regular exercise, proper diet and medical care, a woman her age (late 50s) would have been struggling to stay on her feet all day as a Merry Maid or Wal-Mart sales clerk.
What makes Nickel and Dimed so engaging, however, is not its tutorial on the economics and ergonomics of low-wage life and work. Rather, it is the author's insights into the labor process in the retail and service sectors, and into workplace power relationships. If Wal-Mart had been around in Orwell's era and he, rather than Ehrenreich, had worked there, he would have written 1984 much sooner. The private empire created by Arkansas billionaire Sam Walton boasts both a Big Brother figure--the late "Mr. Sam" himself--and a work force of "proles" (now 825,000 strong) whose docility, devotion and nonunion status are major corporate preoccupations. Entering this "closed system," replete with its own "newspeak" and "doublethink," Ehrenreich discovers that all the workers, like herself, are "associates," all the customers "guests," and the store supervisors "servant leaders."
One of management's top priorities, she learns, is eradicating "time-theft"--a crime most often committed by associates who violate Wal-Mart's strictly enforced "no-talk" rule, linger on their smoke breaks or otherwise dally in the never-ending task of stocking, straightening and restocking shelves. Potential malingerers (and others with rebel tendencies) are ferreted out during the prehire process of personality screening and drug testing. Once you're on the job, close surveillance by "servant leaders" and continuing "education"--via taped messages and training videos featuring Mr. Sam--are a constant feature of company life. To leaven this atmosphere of brainwashing and intimidation, "team meetings" for associates often end with a special "Wal-Mart cheer"--a morale-boosting device personally imported from Japan by the founder himself.
Given the widespread existence of such demeaning conditions and "the dominant corporate miserliness," why don't the wretched of this low-wage world revolt? What's holding them back? Nickel and Dimed offers several explanations for the absence of collective action: high job turn-over among the unskilled, their low self-esteem, the universal fear of being fired for speaking out or challenging management authority and, in some cases, actual workeridentification with corporate values or individual bosses. Even with a background quite different from that of her fellow restaurant workers, Ehrenreich finds herself being affected by the culture of low-wage work in ways that she doesn't like:
Something new--something loathsome and servile--had infected me, along with the kitchen odors that I could still sniff on my bra when I finally undressed at night. In real life I am moderately brave, but plenty of brave people shed their courage in POW camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congenial milieu of the low-wage American workplace.
In the course of the book, after much buffeting by rude customers, abusive supervisors and unreliable co-workers, a kind of working-class alter ego of the author emerges--the "Barb" of her Wal-Mart ID who "is not exactly the same person as Barbara" (nor as sympathetic):
"Barb" is what I was called as a child, and still by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I'm regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out--that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped.
The author sounds more like her usual self when, as a house cleaner for Merry Maids--the McDonald's of its industry--she is forced "to meet the aesthetic standards of the New England bourgeoisie" down on her hands and knees, with a scrub brush. A particularly obnoxious client, the owner of a million-dollar condo on the coast of Maine, takes Ehrenreich into the master bathroom whose marble walls have been "bleeding" onto the brass fixtures--a problem she wants Ehrenreich to address by scrubbing the grouting "extra hard."
That's not your marble bleeding, I want to tell her, it's the worldwide working class--the people who quarried the marble, wove your Persian rugs until they went blind, harvested the apples in your lovely fall-themed dining room centerpiece, smelted the steel for the nails, drove the trucks, put up this building, and now bend and squat and sweat to clean it.
Unable to deliver this political tirade--lest she blow her cover--Ehrenreich instead fantasizes about exacting revenge similar to that witnessed and described so memorably by Orwell in Down and Out (i.e., the disgruntled cook who spat in the soup, the waiters who put their dirty fingers in the gravy, etc.). "All I would have to do," she muses angrily in a gorgeous country house, "is take one of the E. coli-rich rags that's been used on the toilets and use it to 'clean' the kitchen counters." No one, she concludes, should be asked to wipe out someone else's "shit-stained" bathroom bowl or gather up the pubic hairs found in their "shower stalls, bath tubs, jacuzzis, drains, and even, unaccountably, in sinks."
Ehrenreich has long been a rarity on the left--a radical writer with great wit and a highly accessible style. While often sad and grim, Nickel and Dimed is nevertheless sprinkled with the author's trademark humor. She is, for example, frequently struck by the oddity of her circumstances. Sitting alone in a cheap motel, eating takeout food after a hard day at Wal-Mart, she watches an episode of Survivor. "Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here."
Half-assed as her attempts to learn unfamiliar jobs may have been--and as funny as she sometimes makes the experience seem--Ehrenreich is still engaged in a serious project. Nickel and Dimed may not be prime-time fare for millions. Yet, hopefully, it will still reach enough readers to expand public awareness of the real-world survival struggles that many Americans faced even before the current economic downturn. If anything, this book should command greater attention now because the life of the working poor--never easy in good times--is about to get harder in ways we'll never see on "reality TV."
The stage is set for a showdown over the fate of undocumented workers.
New York's City Council is about to open a promising new front in the global struggle against sweatshop exploitation--a city procurement ordinance that requires decent wages and factory conditions for the apparel workers who make uniforms for New York's finest. Mayor Giuliani huffily vetoed the measure, denouncing it as "socialist economics," but since the Council passed it 39 to 5, a veto override is expected. New York City spends up to $70 million a year on uniforms for police, firefighters, sanitation, park and other employees. The city is a customer with clout.
The new ordinance was drafted and promoted by UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) with a unique feature--a global index for determining "nonpoverty" wage levels, country by country, based on objective economic data. The law would require any apparel manufacturer, domestic or foreign, to certify that its wages meet the standard--before the city will buy the company's goods. "The city should not spend its citizens' money in ways that shock the conscience of a vast majority," the Council report declared.
What is more significant, however, is that New York's initiative should reopen a path for local legislative activism on global issues. New York has created a model that city and state governments across the country can use to legislate their own procurement rules against sweatshop conditions. As of last year, the subject seemed closed. The Supreme Court nullified a Massachusetts law boycotting companies that do business with Burma, known for its brutal repression of workers and citizens. The Massachusetts statute was badly drawn and clearly suggested that Boston was trying to make foreign policy--power the Constitution gives to Washington. The New York ordinance has been cast to avoid those flaws, though it will certainly be challenged in court (Mayor Giuliani promised to lead the attack).
"The apparel industry has become a global factory where there are no standards," says Steven Weingarten, UNITE's director of industrial development. "This bill connects the customer with standards for decent conditions and a decent wage. The uniformed unions--police, firefighters and others--are very supportive. To wear uniforms made by people in sweatshop conditions is not what they want to stand for. There are 80,000 apparel workers in New York City, and it should at least stop rewarding the irresponsible manufacturers, both in the United States and abroad."
The principal mechanism for enforcement is disclosure. To complete a sale, a company must certify where the goods were made, including locations of subcontractors, and that it is producing as a "responsible manufacturer"--that is, complying with relevant wage, health, environmental and safety laws, not abusing or discriminating against employees and providing the nonpoverty wage determined by national economic context. If a company files a false report and violates the standards, it could be fined or barred from contracting with the city or sued for civil damages. The reporting system opens the door for citizens to submit facts, and the companies must permit independent monitoring of their factories if city officials request it.
Professor Mark Barenberg of Columbia Law School, chairman of the governing board of the Worker Rights Consortium, believes UNITE's draft legislation is immune to any accusation that New York City is poaching on federal territory, either the regulation of interstate commerce or the executive branch's exclusive domain of foreign relations. Among its flaws, Massachusetts' Burma law targeted a single country with the goal of forcing policy changes, and the boycott rule attempted to hold US corporations responsible for a foreign government's actions. In the New York legislation, the terms apply to any seller of apparel, regardless of location, and involve issues that are already accepted in state-local procurement laws (though not usually applied to foreign production). Under the interstate commerce clause, cities and states are forbidden to discriminate against other states by targeting their producers with anticompetitive restrictions. But, Barenberg explains, "when a city or state acts like a consumer--a market participant itself--it can discriminate in the ways any consumer does."
If a city decides its citizens are offended by abusive working conditions or exploitative wages by producers outside its jurisdiction, it cannot enact a law to stop them, but it can refuse to buy their goods. "It would be a radical act of the Supreme Court to overrule the 'market participant' doctrine and say states and cities may not choose to reject products from foreign countries because they don't want to buy from sweatshops," Barenberg observes.
Of course, the Rehnquist Supreme Court has demonstrated that it is fully capable of "radical acts" in pursuit of right-wing results. Among its various rationales, the Court might declare that while the New York ordinance alone does not damage constitutional balance, the prospect of scores or hundreds of communities enacting similar measures would be intolerable. In the meantime, however, widespread agitation from the grassroots is precisely what's needed to build a fire under the seat of government in Washington. That's how democracy was supposed to work--let the Supremes analyze that.
Otto Reich is the vice chairman of Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production or WRAP, a clothing-industry front founded about a year ago to undermine the growing antisweatshop movement.
Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest
radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the
past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all
the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three
government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee;
Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some
50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in
huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the
cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After
years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to
convert these wastes to a safer form.
DU is less
radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be
more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the
case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have
been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s,
some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger
amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from
nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three
gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE
nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some
apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans
According to a DOE study released this past
January (www.eh.doe.gov/benefits), workers who handled recycled
uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily
exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike
large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy
concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They
were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure
exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this
material because the union might have demanded hazard
Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official
review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that
workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from
cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other
substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung
and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six
facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede
officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by
workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major
nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last
year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion
plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive
compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which
the burden of proof is shifted to the government.
are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The
National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at
DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe
levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls.
Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365
billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium
and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national
sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as
our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the
environment, public safety and the US Treasury.
Multinationals, their intellectual coverings shredded, are love-bombing labor while hunting for new fig leaves.
For more than two years, the antisweatshop movement has been the hottest political thing on campus [see Featherstone, "The New Student Movement," May 15, 2000]. Students have used sit-ins, rallies, hunger strikes and political theater to demand that garments bearing their institution's logo be made under half-decent working conditions.
From the beginning, the major players were students and administrators. While some progressive faculty members--mostly from sociology departments--offered the students early support, economists, who like to think of their discipline as the queen of the social sciences, kept fairly quiet.
That changed this past July. After colleges and universities made a number of visible concessions to the students over the spring, a group of some 250 economists and lawyers released a letter to administrators, basically complaining that they hadn't been consulted. The letter, initially drafted by Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University and burnished to perfection by a collective of free-trade zealots calling themselves the Academic Consortium on International Trade (ACIT), reproached administrators for making concessions "without seeking the views of scholars" in relevant disciplines. Judging from their letter, the views of these scholars might not have been terribly enlightening. On page 24 of the magazine, the ACIT missive appears with some comments (see "Special" box, right).