Why Workers Are Striking: Prosperity Hasn't Trickled down
By Li Lovett
New America Media , CA
In my teens I'd never delivered the paper, flipped a burger, or worked at Walmart. But I get why folks doing these jobs today are mad. The grievances of McDonald's and Walmart employees reflect the struggle of all workers; they're striking because they can't make ends for their families with one -- even two -- full-time incomes at $8 an hour. It's time we convince CEO's that shared prosperity is a good thing. Higher wages going back into the economy are gifts that keep on giving.
A quarter century ago, I was already getting glimpses of the wage inequality that would turn into a huge chasm between the haves and have-nots. As a youngster I learned a few lessons from the corporate world. Simply put, the bottom line is the lining for pockets of the few, not the many. This helps to explain the pent up anger that ordinary workers are feeling toward their billionaire bosses.
After finishing high school in San Jose, CA, I temped at EG&G Reticon, whose imaging devices go back to the Manhattan Project. On the first day, the woman in the neighboring office greeted me with, "It's the Asian invasion." Not the warmest welcome, but she was a prophet of things to come. What she really should have said was: “It’s the coming Age of Globalization.” In 1986, this division of EG&G was about to implode. This co-worker got pink slipped in the hallway one Friday, after 13 years with the company. In spite of her Asia-phobia, I was actually sorry to see her go. There was no exit interview, nor job counseling, not even a simple good-bye. Corporate culture didn't leave much room for human feelings and considerations, which we call ren xing in my native language of Mandarin. The manager had told me earlier, "This company is going to hell."
Lesson #1: If your company is not meeting its bottom line, those of you at the bottom will be unceremoniously dumped.
As a Stanford student, I was paid to provide lecture notes from Elementary Economics with John Taylor. My professor got called to serve on the first President Bush's economic council of advisers, and he is well regarded in conservative circles. Recently Professor Taylor published a book called First Principles, championing free markets as a way back to prosperity. But prosperity for whom? As a student I drew charts for idealized markets, but there was no mention of imploding companies or the disappearing middle class, which the San Jose Mercury News had the foresight to cover in the late '80s, decades before the Great Recession. Even now Professor Taylor is praising Reagonomics, but let's face it, wealth trickles down as well as frozen tree sap.
Lesson #2: After graduation, you may not see eye to eye with your Econ professor on real-world phenomena.
A quarter century ago, as I pounded memos on typewriters amidst the great flowering of Silicon Valley, the prosperity gap had already begun to widen.In the eighties, the average CEO earned up to 100 times what the average worker did. Today’s CEOs earn 354 times more than the average Joe and Jane. MIT professor Michael Greenstone looked at men's wages in 2009 going back three decades. Median wages for men in their prime earning years have actually dropped 27 percent, adjusting for inflation, to $33,000 per year. Looking back, my parents got a foothold in those golden years when a modest five-digit salary afforded you a house and college education for your kids. And kids like me could find a summer job.
Today's Silicon Valley workers earn a decent living -- if they are skilled professionals. Plenty of low-skilled and displaced workers are taking on jobs paying minimum wage. In California that's $8 an hour, what frustrated fast food servers will tell you are poverty wages. It's less than I earned while in college a quarter century ago.
My dad will tell you they don't make things like they used to, but here's the final lesson of the 21st century: We ordinary folks don't earn money like we used to.
(Li Miao Lovett is an award-winning writer and the author of the novel "In the Lap of the Gods," which tells the story of families uprooted by China’s Three Gorges Dam project. She also works as a counselor in the biotechnology and child development programs at City College of San Francisco)