by Jen Giacalone
People, I promise you, I really don’t normally have a beef with MSNBC’s Chris Jansing. She usually does a yeoman’s job (yeo-woman’s?) of covering the news. But when she was interviewing one of the leaders of the striking fast food workers the other day, I was doing an awful lot of yelling at the television.
“So, a lot of teachers only make $16 an hour,” she asked him, “what makes you guys feel that you’re worth $15?”
No, Chris, no. First of all, this plays right into that old Jay Gould chestnut, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” Second of all, it ignores the bigger systemic issue with not only income inequality in general, but the gender-based pay gap and the troubling matter that so many women “choose” to go into low paying fields. One wonders if the fields pay so little precisely because so many women are drawn to them.
The guest, to his credit I suppose, didn’t get sucked into pitting the value of fast food workers against that of teachers, but he also (frustratingly!) missed the opportunity to point out that, actually, teachers generally also ought to be valued more highly and paid better than they are.
The income inequality in America is getting to be so bad that even that bastion of socialist thought, The Wall Street Journal, is saying, “Hey guys… maybe this keeping all the money for ourselves isn’t such a great idea after all because it’s like, causing instability or something.” It’s been said, but bears repeating, that if minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since the Johnson administration, minimum wage would be about $20/hr. Cast in that light, the $15/hr the fast food workers want doesn’t sound like so much. A girl could pay her own bills on that. Probably.
But oh, the hue and cry! And I’m not even talking about from the Stuart Varneys and other Right Wing Business News “spewing-heads” of the world with their disregard/disdain for humanity. I’m talking about other lower wage workers. I recently had an argument with a dialysis technician who, in her current job, with something like seven years of experience, does not yet make $15/hr. And rather than looking at the organizing fast food workers and thinking, “Hey, that’s a good idea,” she looks at them and thinks, “Hey, who are they to think they should get paid more than me for flipping burgers?” There’s no making the point that maybe the fast food workers getting paid $15/hr is good for her, because it strengthens her case. She can say to her employers, “Look, the burger flippers at McDonalds are making $15, you have to do better by me or I’m going to leave to go flip burgers at McDonald’s.”
When I pressed her about this, she said, “Well, when I became a dialysis tech, they told us we weren’t going to get rich doing it, it was something we were doing because we loved it.” Now look, there’s lots of professions you can say that about. If you are a jazz musician playing in a club, fine. If you are an anthropology graduate assistant living your dream of studying the mating habits of the wild Bortok Igorot tribesmen of Polynesia, fine. If you hold people’s lives in your hands… uh, no. You should get paid as if you hold people’s lives in your hands.
There is a systematic undervaluation of professions where women are heavily represented: whether it’s fast food work (skews female by 13% among adult workers), teaching (70% women) or nursing (over 90%), the pay is often not enough to really live comfortably on, or accurately reflect the value of the work. And we tolerate it. When I say we, I don’t refer to myself. I’m fortunate enough to be extraordinarily well paid for what I do. I mean “we” as women, and “we” as a society. We say, “That’s the way it is.” In class-obsessed, status-conscious America, people can often be caught in the trap of determining their worth as a person according to what they are paid. It’s a natural consequence then, that someone looks at a less-skilled job and resents those workers for having the nerve to ask to be paid better. Case in point, the dialysis tech I was arguing with; but you see this attitude reflected all over social media, even from supposed “progressives.”
It comes to this: every last low-wage worker, in every industry, should be cheering the fast food strikers, but most especially women in these kinds of underpaid, under-appreciated but deeply vital fields. It’s the first step to demanding human dignity and, in our class-obsessed society, respect. Get it together, ladies. The fast food workers are striking for you, too.