We have always been divided in our American aspirations: white, black, brown and red. And the reigning whites differed: Loyalists as well as Colonialists: until the War of 1812. Hamilton vs. Jefferson. Not until Andy Jackson’s presidency did class begin to figure seriously in our diverse intentions. The traumatic Civil War split us permanently, victors and vanquished alike, as we see covert racism prevailing in Tea Party taunts. And the Gilded Age deepened the class splits, as industrialists triumphed with the infrastructure of transcontinental railroads for factories and land grant colleges for modernizing agriculture. Teddy Roosevelt with his New Nationalism and Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom grappled with the new realities of corporations and trade unions.
Alas, the booming 20’s collapsed into the depressed 30’s, prodding FDR to field a New Deal for the dispossessed. But it took a World War for the frozen economy to flourish. Not until JFK’s New Frontier were we temporarily ready to shoot for the moon of abundance for all. The compulsive political rhetoric of New this and New that reveals how much suppressed panic discombobulated US all. Until Ronald Reagan declare it was Good Morning in America once more, but not for the unions whose clout had created an expanding middle class.
He offshored production as well as untaxed profits, thereby raising the disparate incomes of maker and taker from 50 to 500! He successfully crippled the union movement and declared it was now safe again to be rich in America, simultaneously abolishing the FCC Equal Time mandate, turning our reasonably honest broadcast discourse into squalid millionaires media. The Supreme Court followed with its venal decision that corporations were First Amendment “citizens” diminishing our already corrupt political discourse into irredeemably venal propaganda. That is the parlous deadend that threatens us today. Desperately disparate.
In this complex situation, I find the Indian Harvard doctoral student Anand Giridharadas’ essay “The Fraying of a Nation’s Decency” (International Herald Tribune, 9/23/2011, p.2), usefully illuminating. First he innumerates the splendid usefulness of Amazon.com’s recent deliveries to him: over seventeen purchases from a hard drive to a pair of jeans.”Buying these things the traditional way would have meant driving around to many different stores and paying as much as twice the price for some items. What’s more, Amazon knows me. It’s like family. It knows where I live, what I like, my credit card number. Which, come to think of it, makes it closer than family. In a moment rife with talk of American decline, my Amazon experiences provide fleeting mood boosts. They remind me that, for now at least, this remains the most innovative society on earth. And then my bubble burst.”
A perceptive feature in “The Morning Call” (Allentown, PA) revealed why the boxes reach me so fast with such low prices. ”And what the story revealed about Amazon could be said of the country, too: that on the road to high and glorious things, it somehow let go of decency.” The Allentown reporter interviewed 20 people who worked in the Amazon Lehigh Valley warehouse. Temperatures of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit caused several employees to faint and fall ill and the company to maintain ambulances outside. Employees ere hounded to “make rate” meaning to pick or pack 120,125,150 pieces an hour, the rates rising with tenure. Few made tenure since the work force was largely temps from a local agency. Rarely were jobs permanent. So workers toiled even when injured to avoid dismissal. A woman who took a week off to deal with breast cancer returned to find her job “terminated”.
“The image of one man stuck with me. “ Giridharadas wrote. “He was a temp in his 50’s, one of the older ‘pickers’ in his group, charged with fishing items out of storage bins and delivering them to the ‘packers’ who box shipments. He walked at least 13 miles, or 20 kilometers, a day across the floor by his estimate.” 120 items an hour is one piece every 30 seconds. Sometimes it was hard to read the titles in the lower bins so he’d get on his knees. He’d often crawl to the next bin. He guessed he plunged onto his knees 250-300 times a day. Sometimes he found it easier to crawl to the next bin. (He was terminated after seven months!)
“The prevailing American story line right now is seething anger at politicians: that they’re corrupt, or heartless, or socialist, or dumb. But the Amazon story, and many other recent developments, suggest the problem is significantly deeper. Far beyond official Washington we would seem to be witnessing” a fraying of the bonds of empathy, decency, common purpose. It is becoming a country in which people more than disagree. They think in types about others, and assume the worst of types not their own.” Alas, I too sneer too easily at the Tea Party Twits, instead of trying discern what’s bugging them. We’re more and more disparately desperate.
Another insightful prophet of mine, Chris Hedges makes a similar take on farm help in “Tomatoes of Wrath” in Truth Dig.com (9/26,2011). “It is 6 a.m in the parking lot outside the La Fiesta supermarket in Immokalee, Fla. Rodrigo Ortiz, a 26-year-old farmworker, waits forlornly in the half light for work in the tomato fields. White-painted school buses with logos such as ‘P.Cardenas Harvesting’ are slowly filling with fieldworkers. Knots of men and a few women, speaking softly in Spanish or Creole, are clustered on the asphalt or seated at a picnic tables waiting for crew leaders to herd them onto the buses, some of which will travel two hours to fields.” At 7 a.m. Ortiz gives up and returns home with the other losers. Almost 90% of the are young, single, immigrant men. They are only paid for what they pick.
Ortiz has only scored three times this week and doesn’t know how he’s going to pay the rent. He sends home $100 a month to his elderly parents in Mexico. He has no access to the aids for documented American workers. His situation replicates medieval serfdom and often descends into actual slavery. The EPA estimates that of the 2 million farm workers, 300,000 suffer pesticide poisoning each year. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (http://www.ciw-online.org) aims to get supermarket support, chain by chain, that would double the workers take in the $600 million tomato-growing industry.
Workers in the field ear about 50 cents for filling a bucket with about 32 pounds of tomatoes. That comes to about $10-12,000 a year. (That includes supervisor wages so workers actually make less.) Wages have been stagnant since 1980. They must pick 2.25 tons of tomatoes to make the minimum wage for a ten hour day. Most pick about 150 buckets a day. Collective bargaining has been outlawed in Florida to maintain Jim Crow working conditions.
“Trader Joe’s” chain has an elaborate PR campaign alleging the workers whose tomatoes they sell are treated fairly, but CIW disagrees and contests Trader Joe's false PR. It appears there is more “fair trade” for faraway countries than our own. So the duplicity of allowing undocumented workers to fatten the business "take" is one more failure of American compassion.
Other abuses like Walmart’s cynically disallowing full time employment so their temps are reduced to Medicaid is yet another instance of America’s going soft on its forgotten or rejected assumption that there is an escalator for Everyman in America. It is a betrayal that makes liars of us all. Everyman as President? Anybody a peasant is more like it. Desperate in our freely chosen Discrepancies.