If you pay attention to the news at all, you have probably heard about the battle for unionization that Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama have been waging. Yesterday, it became clear that the workers had lost that battle. I posted about it on my Facebook today. A friend very quickly retorted that I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this happened in Alabama. Those people are so easily convinced to vote against their own best interests. How could anyone expect any more from them?
I had a different take. See, I have lived through abuse. I know the tactics abusers use, and I know the ways that the abused respond. Amazon is a textbook abuser. They tell their employees how lucky they are to even have their jobs. Why mess with that? If you unionize and fight for higher wages or better treatment, we’ll have to get rid of some of you. After all, we can’t afford to pay you more or to hire more workers, even though we are a trillion-dollar company, owned by the richest man in the world (or second richest. Is it Elon’s day to wear the crown?) In true Ike Turner fashion, they tell their employees how much better off they are than the people at McDonald’s or Old Navy. Think about it, you’re making fifteen whole dollars an hour. Do you really want to risk going to $7.25? When you think of it that way, what’s the big deal about pooping in a bag or peeing in a bottle once in a while? Facing the threat of possibly losing half their wages, who wouldn’t side with the boss?
While the Amazon story was front page news, there are some items under the fold that also merit attention. For one, there’s a story about an Ohio McDonald’s worker who shot and killed a coworker during a work dispute. There’s also a former Walmart employee who drove his car through the store after being fired. These stories need to be addressed for a number of reasons. First of all, these are the people on the bottom rung of the ladder of late-stage capitalism, second, these are the people that the Amazon workers are afraid of becoming, and third, because stories like this are becoming more and more common.
Someone once said that the man with nothing to lose is the most dangerous man in the world. Unfortunately, the number of these people in America has skyrocketed over the years, and the Corona crisis has only made matters worse. As of 2020, there were more than 500,000 homeless people in the USA. In addition to that, about 55 million Americans live in poverty, according to Columbia University. Furthermore, a study by Northwestern University shows that 23% of households faced food insecurity during 2020. On top of all that, 40 million Americans are facing eviction. While eviction moratoriums are in place (at least for the moment), that hasn’t saved all renters. For example, in February, an Albany landlord kidnapped his tenants at gunpoint in the middle of the night, tied them up, and left them in a cemetery.
This brings me to my point: People are getting desperate. They have been pushed to their limits and beyond, and now nothing is off the table. According to CNN, homicides rose 33% in major cities in 2020. Some, like senator Tom Cotton, choose to address the symptom instead of the problem. He recently tweeted that America has a “major under-incarceration problem.” This is an excellent moment to do a little math. The US is about 4% of the world’s population, but it has more than 22% of the world’s prison population. Seriously, as much as we Americans pride ourselves on being #1, the only things we lead the world in are incarceration, military spending, and mass shootings. Not putting enough people in prison is not the problem.
But Mr. Cotton is emblematic of the real problem. (The bulk of) Our elected officials are indifferent to the suffering of the American people. After all, as long as their corporate donors deliver for them, why should they care about us? At the end of the day, that’s really who they’re looking out for. All of the Republicans in the senate as well as a number Democrats voted against a $15 an hour minimum wage, even though that would mean a raise for 17 million Americans.
This brings us to another math moment. The current minimum wage is $7.25. At 40 hours, that’s $290 before taxes. Let’s say it’s $245 after taxes. Multiply that by 4, and it comes to $980 per month. Just to put this number in perspective, according to rent.com, in Springfield, MO, the major city with the cheapest rent in the country, the average rent for a studio is $615 per month. This number doesn’t include utilities.
Needless to say, this means that an increasing number of people need more than one job in order to survive. This necessity has led to an interesting cultural development: Hustle culture. People feel like the only real solution for low wages is to work harder. It’s even introduced hip lingo into the cultural vernacular: People are eager to hustle and to grind. It’s even created catchphrases like “rise and grind.” Personally, I was fond of using the hashtag #gottahustle. Dolly Parton even did a jingle for Fiverr called “Working 5 to 9”. Personally, I find the song confusing. Are you working until 9pm or 9am? Given the current dystopian state of affairs, either is a possibility. But if it is the latter, when do you sleep?
With the advent of hustle culture, the thing that isn’t talked about is what people are losing. As work times go up, people have less time for hobbies, socializing, and relaxation in general. This could also mean sleep. I say this last part because of my own experience with grind culture. Let me tell you, I lived for the hustle during my time in New York, and I wore my sleep deprivation like a badge of honor. It wasn’t unusual for me to work 24 hours in a row. 36 was possible, but my record was 72. I was working nights at the time, but I had an opportunity to do a three-day marketing campaign that overlapped my normal work week. If I did it, I could make three months’ rent in three days. You already know what I did.
And that’s the problem. We have large numbers of people who are so desperate for money, they will do anything. They will sacrifice anything, even their health in the name of money. Add to that the fact that there’s a pandemic that is keeping a lot of people from earning money, and you have a recipe for disaster. Take a lack of sleep, a lack of free time, a lack of leisure activities, and a lack of socialization, and you end up with a lack of mental health. That is where we are. We have people so desperate to earn a living that they are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to do so.
And that’s how you get people like that McDonald’s employee in Ohio and the Walmart employee in North Carolina. When you push people beyond the brink, they break, and in this moment, we have millions of workers who are at the breaking point. Do we have it in us to make the necessary changes to save them and us from disaster, or are we about to fuck around and find out?