The Work Around

Even though Andrew, a manager in a large food business in the Midwest, and his wife together make a decent income, he's preoccupied by the issue of low-wage labor. Many of the workers in his food company, he explains, make "poverty wages," and he is affected by all the troubles they bring with them to work.

"I pad their paychecks because you can't live on what they make," he says. "I punch them out after they have left for a doctor's appointment or to take care of someone. ... And I give them food to take home." He talks about the moral dilemma of employing people who can't take care of their families even though they are working hard. Apparently this was something Andrew couldn't pretend was OK. He came to the decision to "do what [he] can" even at the risk of being accused of stealing.

Andrew has a moderate income, health insurance, and a career ladder, but he spends most of his days dealing with the complications that wage poverty causes in his employees' lives, despite how hard they work. It wasn't what he had hoped his job would be. Worse, he says, it eats away at his idea of being a fair man.

To work for low wages or with those who do is to experience an economic fault line firsthand. On one side are ordinary people working hard and being sustained by their pay, and on the other side are ordinary people working hard but unable even to scrape by. This fault line runs through every part of life and through the country's core institutions: workplaces, schools, health and human services centers. These are the nation's class intersections, where middle- and lower-income people face each other every day, as they go to work, as their children go to school or day care, or as their family goes to the doctor. These are essential activities -- the customs of the country. But in this economy, millions try to fulfill the duties of daily life without earnings to make that possible. They cannot afford the basics -- the transportation, rent, groceries, fuel -- and most damaging of all, they cannot keep their children healthy and protected. Over the last 20 years, an increasing percentage of hardworking families have been quietly and chronically eroded by a brutal economy while national and business leaders have accepted, even promoted, this kind of society.

Such profound harm spreads much farther than the millions of low-income people on the front lines; it leaks into the lives of those who work with them, people like Andrew. Employers spend every day with working parents being paid less than what they need for their families to survive. Teachers spend every day educating children whose parents can't keep them safe and nurtured, let alone make sure all homework is done. Health-care practitioners send sick people out the door knowing that they can't buy the medicines or care needed to save their life. In an economy that impoverishes so many people even as they do the jobs of the nation, the fault line becomes a moral line, too.

Andrew concluded that he had to do more than sympathize; he had to do something. Like other regular Americans in the past, he decided that when you see people being treated unfairly and, worse still, you realize you play a direct role in that unfairness, the right thing to do is to act against it. In the tradition of civil disobedience that marks the nation's history, often unassuming but morally clear-eyed people like Andrew refuse to go along with the economic mistreatment of others. When he could get away with paying working people a wage "supplement" that meant they wouldn't lose their homes or go hungry, he did so.

And Andrew is certainly not alone.

***

Since 2001, Cora has run an upscale restaurant in a chain that caters to young professionals and office workers in urban areas on the East Coast. "I run a very fast-moving, very busy service," Cora says. "I have been the supervisor here for two years. I have a long list of employees for the two shifts, and they are almost all women. Many are moms or they have a lot of [family] responsibilities."

The issue of family comes up all the time and stands out for Cora because she came from a large family that set a priority on meeting children's needs. Cora explains that as she got to know some of the employees, she realized that their families did not have the financial resources or available caretakers to make sure "kids were getting the supervision that they are supposed to." Cora is not a mother, but she could think like one. And work schedules were one of the problems.

The franchise Cora works for has rules about employee schedules, how many hours they are supposed to work and when they are supposed to be available whether or not they are needed. Of course, they aren't supposed to bring children to the workplace. "It's about control," Cora explains. "They don't want people working too many hours because they are worried about overtime and maybe having to pay benefits. And they want a routine, like each restaurant in the chain should be the same, run the same way."

The restaurant opens at 6 A.M. and closes at 8 P.M., and employees are not supposed to come in and out of work during shifts. "I couldn't go along with their rules," Cora says. "It was ridiculous, like I'm going to tell this mother with a 4-year-old, 'No, you can't leave to pick him up ... the scrod comes first!' Or tell another one, 'No, your kids can't sit at the table and eat lunch and wait for you to get off work. Tell them to go play in traffic'?"

Eventually, Cora came up with a double-talk system. "I developed two time sheets, one that I sent in to the [central] office and the other that [reflected] the real hours," she tells me. Moms could come in, work four hours, take off to do something they had to do, and then come back. "They worked the details out themselves and made sure that the busy times were covered with enough people," she says. "I think it's stupid to make people stick to a rigid schedule when they have family issues. I thought a lot about it at first, you know, worried that I was lying. ... It's my name that goes on the [employer records]. Basically I decided that helping women meet their kids or do what they have to do is more important."

Today, the malignant effects of unregulated market rule are being exposed as economic damage spreads beyond millions of working poor families. But plenty of ordinary people had been grappling with an unjust economy long before the press and politicians became riveted by an economic "meltdown." The fairness of the economy can look very different from the vantage point of America's class intersections, where middle- and low-income people meet every day. Far away from debates about Wall Street and Main Street, in the side streets, byways, and common corners of the nation, where most Americans live, some have been staking out different moral terrain.

History teaches us that whenever people are denied access to a society's normative ways of self-protection and survival, they will compose alternatives. This is not a mobilized or intentionally organized underground, rather an array of secret and sometimes illicit ways people push back against unfairness. They revise work schedules, alter health-insurance forms, detour resources to hungry families, "pad paychecks." It is a tale that has always emerged in America when business has free rein, can undermine the public good, and can buy and sell political will. Today's is a contemporary version, but it is one that recalls a history when market rule could justify almost anything -- buying and selling human beings, sending children into coal mines, denying people the right to organize, gutting whole communities to take jobs to a cheaper elsewhere, or leaving people who have labored their long lives without a pension or a home.

There is, however, a parallel story, one about resistance. It is a new chapter in the proud history of how people will refuse to go along with economic abuse -- and not just the few heroes we recall. Heroes alone don't shift the ground. Deep change comes only when regular people start naming what is happening, talking to one another, and, inevitably, when some of them decide that they can't accept such injustice.

When I ask Cora if she can get fired for her double-talk paperwork, if the top management finds out, she says, "Sure ... in a heartbeat." But Cora believes that her completely elastic schedule, largely employee-designed, is the reason that her particular restaurant has low turnover and a loyal work force. "They bring their kids sometimes and [the kids] sit around here. I try to sit with them sometimes so they see that some white woman who is a boss can be friendly," she tells me. Sometimes the kids bring homework. There were once "five of us over here trying to figure out algebra," Cora told me, laughing. "I thought maybe we should bring in some college kids to sit around with them ... you know, like homework session." But this would be going too far: Cora's success is due to staying "below the radar" of the franchise managers.

Cora's feelings about work are completely different from those of some of the other managers she meets when the chain periodically brings them together for meetings. She chooses not to say much about why she has such a stable work force: "I just say, 'Treat them with respect.'"

But Cora did much more than that. She imagined herself in their shoes, and that led to her decisions. For Cora, the relationships that she has developed at work are essential to the way she sees herself, not just as a boss but as a person. She talks about it as creating a small space that is "more human ... just treating each other like human beings." She tells me, "I wouldn't be able to be myself, I would have to change [into someone else]" to abide by company rules.

Then Anna, one of her employees, walks by. She is headed out to pick up her son, drop him at her mother's house, and then come back in for another few hours.

***

Is Cora a liar or a decent person? She systematically falsifies information about her workers. Yet she seems to have entirely reconciled this approach with the conflict she was feeling. Cora found herself at least partially to blame for the problems mothers were having keeping their children safe: "I don't set the [wages], but when I see their paychecks ... I'm like, 'What can she do with this? ... How's she supposed to get by?'"

While Cora refers to wages as a primary problem, the issue that spurred her to action had to do with caring about people -- the dilemma low-wage parents face trying to care for their children. Cora believes that the damage of disregarded people and families doesn't stay gated in one community; that's not how society works. When a rich nation's wages are so low that children and other vulnerable people are neglected, it is criminal, according to Martin Luther King Jr.; it is indecent, according to Adam Smith; and it should be defied, according to Cora and Andrew.

Like Cora and Andrew, many other supervisors have looked beyond the fact that it is legal for the market to set wages below what families need to survive. Of course it is lawful and "good for business," thus enthusiastically endorsed by a government increasingly run by corporate interests and their lobbyists.

But does that make it right? When you look into the faces of people who are doing their work and trying to take care of their families, is it decent? And if not, who do you have to become to obediently go along with impoverishing workers and their families? For people like Andrew and Cora, when you ignore injustice embedded in your society, you become part of it, complicit with what you consider immoral. And for some, this changes how they see their role in the world and the work that they do.

Decades ago, Studs Terkel went around the country talking to common people to find out about their lives. From those conversations, he wrote the book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The people he interviewed often gave him more than a recitation of activities; they described "daily meaning as well as daily bread." Terkel's account revealed how much a person's job affects their sense of self-value in the larger society.

This is just as true today as it was 35 years ago. But for some people, the meaning of work reaches beyond personal identity. When your job brings you face-to-face with others who are being damaged by an unjust system, "daily meaning" may come from taking their side.

This article is adapted from The Moral Underground © 2010 by Lisa Dodson, published by The New Press, and reprinted here with permission.

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