One of the perks of being a letter carrier is that many people give you gifts at Christmas. This year, among other things, I received over $50 in gift cards for Burger King. As the place does have salads, various kinds of chicken, and low fat fries, it is not impossible to eat reasonably healthy there, so I have been using my cards.
The other day the young man who took my order asked if the Post Office was hiring. I told him that I was not sure, but he could go to the website (www.usps.gov) and see if they were accepting applications. I noted that it would beat working at Burger King; while our last, arbitrated, contract ended up cutting new hires’ wages by a third, it is still about double minimum wage, with long term substantial wage increases if you stick it out. I said that surviving on BK wages must be hard. He said, yeah, he has four kids. Man, I replied, that must be rough. He said not only that but his work had been cut to thirty hours a week, lest they have to pay for health benefits, as the new health care law stipulates.
“Sons of bitches”, I replied, and pointed out that the guys higher up in the corporation were living lives of ease, their wealth the fruit of his labor. And I noted the nascent movement among fast food workers agitating for a minimum wage increase; he was vaguely aware of this.
Indeed, looking it up later I found that the CEO of Burger King makes $6.5 million a year. Next time I see the young man I will make a point to tell him this.
This has become a sort of second vocation for me, stirring up low paid workers.
I am sort of in an interesting place. I am a letter carrier. I get a decent wage, but with seven kids at home and a wife who stays home with the young ones, my life has a lot in common with lower wage workers. Granted, aside from the wages I have many advantages from my union job that they do not share: paid sick leave, generous vacation and holiday pay, a pension. And the people I work with, though technically working class -they earn their bread from physical labor- live solidly middle class lives. Only one other carrier has more than three children, for one thing, and I am the only one whose spouse does not work outside the home. If you make a carrier’s salary and your spouse has a middling job, you have a six figure household income. Nearly all of them live in nice houses on either acreage or in a subdivision.
Me, I live in a working class neighborhood, and our house is old and funky. My neighbors struggle.
I have found that most low wage workers are too immersed in trying to make ends meet to think much about the bigger picture. But I also find that when you take the time to talk to them, they quickly grasp the injustice of their situation.
Like the guy at the Speedway gas station down the street. He was conversing with the man ahead of me in line and made some comment about not being able to afford something or other on minimum wage. I expressed surprise at this; wasn’t he a manager? Yes, he was, he said, but had been told that maybe he would get a raise if profits were high enough. When I got home I did some research and found that the CEO of his company made some $3 million a year, which fact I shared with the manager the next time I saw him. He no longer works there, and I hope he has found a better job.
Thus, my new vocation.
Call it consciousness-raising, or call it hell-raising, or just call it agitation. If we are ever going to challenge the corporate capitalist system, the one Francis calls “unjust at its root”, the one that has destroyed the working class and left the poor in desperation, even as the wealth of the rich grows to obscene levels, the raising of awareness among the victims of the system is a good place to start.