Appreciation: Barbara Ehrenreich foresaw labor resurgence

Someone has to grow and harvest the food in the fields. Someone has to clean up the carcasses, drive the trucks and unload the cargo. Someone has to process, prepare, cook, serve the food. There is always someone around to handle the register, stock the shelves, sweep the counters, sweep the floors, scrub the toilets – even on holidays like Labor Day. They smile at strangers, chase away troublemakers, lock the doors and wait for the bus in the dark.

America is ruled by the somebodies and hasn’t seen a day without their help. They earn as little as their bosses want to pay them, but writer Barbara Ehrenreich saw them, learned their names, and had their backs. She thought it was the responsibility of employees like herself in the “professional-managerial class” – a term she helped coin in the 1970s – to recognize the workers’ struggle and unite.

Ehrenreich, the bestselling author of books like “Nickel and Dimed” and an early member of the Democratic Socialists of America, died Thursday at the age of 81 after suffering a recent stroke. Ehrenreich goes as a redeemed prophetess of sorts: her astute work on the crushing poverty of wage laborers and the decline of white-collar workers has become common knowledge, at least on the political left. Anyone wondering why local Starbucks baristas are suddenly unionizing or why the White House is now forgiving college debt would do well to check out her book.

Like iconoclastic Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — another self-proclaimed Democratic socialist — Ehrenreich was an old-school left, forged by the activists of the 1960s whose relentless focus on class divisions (even if it wasn’t fashionable war) has always given her -larger audiences later in life, especially among younger people.

Even as economic inequality exploded in the US, the 1990s wasn’t a boom time for something as old as talk of class warfare. Soviet Communism had been discredited and defeated; The American unions were severely weakened; the stock market boomed; and a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, presided over cuts, not additions, to the US welfare system.

Ehrenreich wondered how the millions of women pushed back into the labor market by these cuts could possibly survive on wages as low as $6 an hour. “Someone should do the old-fashioned kind of journalism,” she recalled of one editor. “You know, get out there and try it yourself.” She meant someone else. In a fateful and enriching decision, she finally did it herself.

Ehrenreich, who has a PhD, consciously chose low-wage jobs as a waitress, cleaner, nursing home help, and retail clerk to see if she could survive on standard wages and rent without government support. She found so much more than low wages: drug tests, personality tests, and purse searches by despotic bosses; anti-union Wal-Mart orientation videos and ban on shop chatter; the lack of timely breaks to use the toilet or to eat or drink.

The work was hard — Ehrenreich stopped believing in the term “unskilled labor” afterward — and surviving on wages was even harder, even in cities where local businesspeople complained to the media about “labor shortages.” . (Sound familiar?) Instead of discovering some sort of hidden economy that the working class could use to survive, they instead found a host of additional costs, like higher rents for those who can’t afford upfront payments. “You don’t need an economics degree to see that wages are too low and rents are too high,” Ehrenreich concluded, adding, “To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, an unnamed benefactor to all.” be different.”

Ehrenreich’s book about her experience, Nickel and Dimed, hit the bestseller lists upon its release in 2001 and became a staple on college reading lists, introducing educated millennials to the kind of critiques of economic inequality that are being made today dominates the politics of younger Americans. (The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has not been increased since 2009.)

The irony of aspiring young people reading immersion journalism about their working-class peers would not have been ironic to Ehrenreich, who has also explored the plight of employees in books like Bait and Switch. She had long believed that society’s “professional managerial class” – caught between the working class and the propertied class – often struggled to find common ground with workers, despite often facing the same downward pressures on wages and mobility.

Today, many middle management jobs are being automated away, underpaid schoolteachers are spearheading some of the nation’s most radical work stoppages, and many of America’s largest new unions are made up of heavily indebted college graduates.

“What happened to the professional middle class has long since happened to the working class,” summed up Ehrenreich and her ex-husband John Ehrenreich in 2013, as they reflected on the development of white-collar workers over the past few decades. “Those of us who have college and advanced degrees have proven no more indispensable as a group to American capitalist enterprise than those who have honed our skills on the assembly line or in warehouses or foundries.”

Ehrenreich was puzzled during the 2020 Democratic primary to learn that “PMC” had become something of a leftist slur for white-collar Democrats — the lawyers, consultants and even CEOs who have made the party their home — at odds with their class position seemed to stand with the working-class roots of the party. “I hate to see ‘PMC’ becoming an ultra-left swear word,” Ehrenreich told Dissent Magazine. “We must work together!”

The trick, Ehrenreich believed, was for the middle class to realize that the trapdoor was beginning to open beneath their feet. Many people had already failed. They just hadn’t been noticed. Appreciation: Barbara Ehrenreich foresaw labor resurgence

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