Everything you think you know about low-wage workers is wrong

Posted: July 5, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Got a low wage worker myth you need busted, not addressed below?  Leave it in a comment, and I’ll take it up in second installment of LOW WAGE MYTHBUSTING.


The struggles of low-wage workers have gotten increasing amounts of attention after thousands of us walked off the job earlier this year to demand a living wage and better working conditions.  It’s also prompted a lot of folks, from pundits down to internet trolls, to spout a whole lot of nonsense like “Do low-wage workers really deserve $15 an hour?”–“They need to get some education.”–“If companies paid low-wage workers just a tiny bit more money, they’d have to fire everyone else.”–“Raising minimum wage would tank the economy.”

All of those are ridiculous, but I must say, I find the last one particularly striking.  I have news for you, folks.  The economy is already tanked.  Guess who did that?  Banks.  Guess who didn’t do that?  Minimum wage workers.

As easy as it would be to reply to these with a level of snark I usually reserve for the kind of people who think support Ron Paul is edgy and marginally progressive (hint: no, it’s just reactionary), I’m actually going to take the time, just this once, to dispel all the ridiculous lies, myths, and fanciful imaginings I hear about low-wage workers like myself all the time.  And then, instead of being forced to write long responses to ignorant people who feel the need to tell me that I’m stupid and unskilled enough to tank the economy single-handedly, I’m going to link them back to this post.  Because I’ve had it.  Low-wage workers are here.  We’re real people, and we’re fighting back against some really fucking shitty working conditions, and we’re moving forward, so join in, or get out of the way.


Myth #1: Low-wage workers are mostly teenagers, college students with summer jobs, or people who are only supplementing a second income.

Each of these statements is categorically false.  35 million workers in the US make less than $10.55/hour.  That’s 26% of the total workforce.  57.4% of low-wage workers are over 30.  Only 16.6% of minimum wage workers are teenagers.  While low-wage jobs are known for their high rate of turnover, that rate has declined significantly since the beginning of the recession five years ago.  And finally, 89% of people with low-wage retail jobs contribute at least 50% of their family budget.

The statistics disprove the myth, but I think it’s important to also confront the logic behind it, which is that it’s morally and economically acceptable to ruthlessly exploit some people and not others.  It’s also a perspective that fails to take into account the broader social crisis being experienced by the American working class (and workers worldwide).

So our response to this myth must be two-sided.  It’s not enough to say that it’s factually incorrect (which it is) because it doesn’t also confront the idea that working teenagers, college students, and other young workers also deserve a living wage, a stable job, and good working conditions.

The old labor battle cry, “An injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a relic from ages past.  It must be a central principle to union organizing and movement building today.  The ability of the ruling class to keep such a large percentage of the working class in poverty makes it easier for them to justify austerity for all workers, easier for them to attack unionized industries.

Myth #2:  Low-wage workers could get better jobs through education.

They like to claim that education is a ticket out of poverty.  It’s a nice dream: a few years of hard work and BOOM!  You’ll have a job that pays the bills, doesn’t involve being degraded on a daily basis, and allows you to have holidays off (nope, we don’t get holidays off).  It’s a nice story, but unfortunately, it’s not true.

These days, instead of being a ticket out of poverty, education is more like a guarantee that you will remain in poverty.

The reality is, after five years of crisis, a supposed “recovery” that has only managed to recover a fraction of the jobs lost, and which has disproportionately replaced better-paying jobs with low-wage jobs.  Workplaces like Whole Foods–which despite some very snazzy PR, still pays its employees poverty wages–employ the most workers with advanced degrees in the grocery business.

More and more workers go into (often massive) student debt to receive an education, only to end up working the same jobs they would have been working otherwise–jobs which do not require college education.  Or high school education for that matter.  Education is not a ticket out of poverty, but a gamble where the odds are heavily stacked against you.

And, perhaps most importantly, we need to fight to make access to a living wage job a right.  As lowwagework.org noted:

Employers will hire nearly twice as many food-service workers as software engineers, hire as many cashiers as they do computer-support specialists and hire more than twice the number of customer-service representatives as they do computer systems analysts. The reskilling approach will do little to improve the lives of most workers in these low-wage jobs, jobs that will continue to grow as a proportion of our economy. What these workers need is to be adequately rewarded for the skills they already possess.

Regardless of education level, ability, etc., no one deserves to live in poverty.  This means we need to demand a living wage for every job–part or full time–and a social wage that can care for people who are unable to work.  Which brings me to Myth #3.

Myth #3: Raising the Minimum Wage/Providing Living Wages Would Tank the Economy, or $15 an hour isn’t realistic.

$15 an hour is realistic, and it would not tank the economy.  I did some math, and the store I work at could afford to pay us $30/hour and still be making more than $10,000 in profit each day.  Another store I investigated could pay its employees over $50 and maintain a profit margin.

And once again, I would like to point out that workers didn’t tank the economy five years ago.  Banks did.

The statistics in #1 reflect the restructuring of work that has been the product of forty years of neoliberalization.  Fast food workers and retail workers are a part of these statistics, but the realms of low-wage work now extend far beyond these industries, even reaching into the strongholds of union power through the increasing use of two-tier pay schemes like those in auto and trucking.  This myth fails to understand that work, as a whole, is being restructured so wages are lower overall.  Low-wage work is not something that remains segregated to a few industries or a few kinds of work.  There is nothing inherently low-wage about the kind of work we do.  Wages are the result of social forces, not some mystical and static economic reality, but confronting these trends is going to require standing up to neoliberal business and policy trends, which are part of a broader trend of capitalism.

Myth #4: Low-wage workers are unskilled, and that justifies paying them poverty wages.

It starts with an anecdote.  A couple of weeks ago, I went with my union to protest the firing of Shakita Moore, a Jason’s Deli worker who faced racism, sexual harassment and physical threats and was fired for speaking out.  After being screamed at by management and police for daring to interrupt their busy lunch rush, one of the organizers remarked to me, “wow, you are really good at holding your ground when people are up in your face.”

Well, yeah.  I’m a cashier.  That’s pretty much what I do for a living.  It’s a skill I’ve cultivated to help me better at my job.  Scream in my face, and I can still smile and tell you to have a good day when my natural reaction would be to punch you.

Besides all the more “tangible” parts of our jobs–putting out product, handling huge amounts of cash, running computer programs to process electronic funds transfers, manipulating those programs to make our customers experiences smooth, we do something far less tangible: emotional labor.  Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe has been doing some excellent reporting on the nature and experience of emotional labor.  I highly recommend her work.

Again, within this myth lies another central problem: the nebulous and socially constructed nature of skill.  As Jaffe has noted, emotional labor has traditionally been considered to fall outside the realm of skilled work because it has been naturalized as “women’s work,” thus justifying lower rates of pay.  But if we think historically, similar arguments were made towards the organization of industrial workers a century ago.  Artisans claimed that because they did not conceive and execute a project in entirety, that these workers were unskilled.  Today, assembly line jobs in auto plants are considered skilled.  Again, there’s nothing inherently skilled or unskilled in the work; what matters is how “skill” is socially constructed and valued.

In a society that produces plenty, there is no reason for some people to not have enough.

As the gaps in wealth and income continue to grow, capitalist rags like The Economist run stories that argue, “Does inequality really need to be tackled? It is also true that some measure of inequality is good for an economy. It sharpens incentives to work hard and take risks; it rewards the talented innovators who drive economic progress.”  Ugh.  Puke.

Increasingly, as low-wage workers have begun to take to the streets, public opinion has begun to shift.  New York City became the latest city to mandate that workers be given sick days.  And the victories will continue to rack up as long as workers continue to build power in their workplaces.

Myth #5: Low-wage workers cannot be organized.

Clearly, we can be.


Got a low wage worker myth you need busted?  Leave it in a comment, and I’ll take it up in second installment of LOW WAGE MYTHBUSTING.

  1. Nicely stated. I look at Walmart whose labor costs are less than 1% of sales and think …Add 1 penny to every bottle of Snapple and you could double your staff’s salary. Greed is not good (Sorry Gordon Gekko)… greed is just greed.

    BTW, one of the bright spots in the world’s economy, Australia has tied its minimum wage to inflation. Their rate right now is $17.50 per hour……..and they have “National Health”…the universal free health system….According to the BS our Right Wing apologists feed us, Australia should resemble Bangladesh by now.

  2. APS says:

    Myths, handily packaged as loaded questions:

    # But isn’t our present federally-mandated minimum wage comparable to that of earlier minimum wages?

    # Sure, low-wage workers perform emotional labor, but the rate of pay one earns for such labor has no bearing on performance; I mean, your experience at Wal*Mart’s going to be the same no matter what the employees are paid, right?

    # But if one company in a low-wage industry increases its pay, it will lose its competitive advantage versus its competitors, no?

    # Doesn’t any publicly-traded company have a mandate to do all in its power to increase profits for the benefits of its shareholders? Isn’t raising pay for low-wage workers unjustifiable versus the profit motive?

    • Trish Kahle says:

      1. No, they are not. If they had kept track with inflation and productivity, the minimum wage today would be over $21.00/hour, which, incidentally, is also a living wage for a family here in Chicago.

      2. Incorrect. Paying your employees better, giving them sick days, and not harassing them on the job improves their standard of living, and can 1) increase emotional productivity on the job and 2) decrease turnover, resulting in a more experienced, adept staff. This is the model Whole Foods applies (although half-heartedly, hence the mediocre results). When you pay twice the price for a potato at Whole Foods, you are partially paying for the increased quality of the product, but most of the cost increase is acceptable to customers because of the “Whole Foods experience.” (This was explained explicitly during my training and has been confirmed by my interactions with customers.) In a world moving to increase mechanization, people are willing to pay for excellent customer service, which is almost entirely based on competent emotional labor. Other stores, like Nike and Foot Locker, employ this model as well.

      3. Not necessarily, for some of the reasons I outlined above. Decreases in turnover can also save significant amounts on training and increase sales with more experienced workers. Finally, as Sarah Jaffe points out in her piece Grin and Abhor It, customers prefer to patronize businesses that treat their workers well, and workers can use this to their advantage in organizing campaigns.

      However, you do point out why it benefits workers as a whole to organize industry-wide. Demanding higher standards for workers will be the result of workplace organization, but can also be codified in law, as has been done in the past, but has been eroded, especially since the 1973 crisis.

      4. It does, but the mandate does not exist in a vacuum. If we consider the balance of power between workers and management, the stronger the workers become, the more power they have to demand that a larger portion of profits be diverted into pay and benefits for them. Second, the costs of higher pay and benefits need not necessarily come from profits. They can also come from cuts to middle management, elimination of bonuses, etc. At the end of the day, when workers are organized and have the capacity to withdraw their labor power and enforce that withdrawal, when $50,000 in profit a day is no longer tenable and the company must choose between not conducting business (and losing market share) and making $25,000 in profit, all of a sudden $25,000 will look a lot better to them. Gains don’t come because management suddenly decides they don’t want to make $50,000 in profit, but because organized workers force them to accept an alternative scenario.

      (It’s also worth pointing out that there is a general correlating trend between worker satisfaction and growths in productivity. Even when workers were making gains in the workplace in years past, profitability still increased. There is not necessarily a inverse relationship between profits and concessions to workers.)

      • I definitely agree that anyone who works steadily and well should be able to live comfortably, and that those who cannot do so should be assisted. My problem with raising the minimum wage is the corresponding rise in prices which inevitably follows. How do we keep these same companies from viewing the increase in disposable income and passing all expenses on to a consumer who is in the same slowly sinking boat? Raising minimum wage laws causes an increase in demand leading to price increases (which does not lead to a crashed economy no mater what others might say, you are right about that) which harm the poor without noticeably harming the affluent. Increases in demand from individuals who are finally being paid what they deserve will drive the prices of goods and services they desire.

        I agree something has to be done, and strikes have been effective in the past, but unless this basic economic tenant of extracting maximum profit from the moiling masses can be short-circuited by technological advance or social change then the unseen hand of the market will slap us back into our place without hesitation.

        I’m not an expert though, I just read and observe. Hopefully I am wrong.

  3. pablohutch says:

    “Wages are the result of social forces, not some mystical and static economic reality,”

    I was with you until that statement, but now you just lost all credibility.

    • Trish Kahle says:

      I’d take your comment more seriously if you even attempted to provide some sort of counter argument to disprove something that is not generally controversial.

      The balance of social forces play the central role in determining the parameters of the labor “market.” Again, respond with an actual counterargument, maybe I can approach your comment with a little bit more seriousness.

  4. […] This woman is tired of myths about low-wage workers […]

  5. The Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart family, possess assets of more than $100 billion — each of the four of them, individually, are among the 17 richest people on the planet. At the same time, Wal-Mart employees need food stamps to eat because their pay is so low. There are plenty of other examples, of course. So much for “we can’t afford to pay more.”

  6. […] Everything Else -Captain Awkward writes about job search red flags and due diligence. As usual, there’s lots of good stuff in the comments too. -I love how this writer applied his writing skills to fighting sexism: changing the creepy guy narrative. -Hell yeah MA: Massachusetts figured out a simple solution to prevent domestic homicide. -A boys’ camp to redefine gender. -Welcome to the (Don’t Be) Evil Empire: how Silicon Valley is running the world, and destroying San Francisco. -SO MUCH YES to all of this: “We’re number umpteenth!”: the myth of lagging US schools. -Feminism deserves better than “sex negative vs. sex-positive.” -Reproductive justice and the “war on women,” or, an ode to the intersections. -Everything you think you know about low-wage workers is wrong. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s