I've been stewing for a little while over a few comments I've seen in various blogs and comment-threads, such as in Kevin Drum's recent postings about a strike of supermarket workers in California. (Additional posts by Kevin here, here and here.) I don't want to comment on the whole vagaries of the strike and the various unionization issues involved, but what has got me worried is the tenor of some comments I've seen. Specifically, statements like this (rough paraphrases; I'm not looking up specific quotes here):
"Jeez, how much do we want to pay unskilled labor, anyway?"
"Go get yourselves a college education, and then we'll talk about health care."
I find these kinds of thoughts enormously disturbing, and I've been reading a bit more about low-wage workers. Right now I'm on a book called The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans, and it's quite the eye-opening volume. It's more of an academic study of the low-wage part of our economy than, say, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: it covers some of that territory, but it also gives a lot of numbers backing up the problems faced by our nation's low-wage workers. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the book, but so far the most valuable stuff I've found here is the demographic information about low-wage workers and the jobs they hold. Here's a hint: low-wage workers are older, whiter, and better educated than the general stereotype implies.
:: Forget "flipping burgers". Fast-food jobs constitute less than 5% of low-end jobs.
:: Teenagers hold 7% of low-wage jobs.
:: A majority of adults who hold low-wage jobs also have families.
:: Nearly two-thirds of all low-wage workers are white.
:: While blacks and Latinos constitute a minority of low-wage workers, they are represented in the low-wage workforce by a greater percentage of their overall workforce than are whites (31.2% of blacks and 40.4% of Latinos, versus only 20% of whites.)
:: Women constitute 60% of the low-wage work-force.
:: Three-quarters of those women are white. (But again, blacks and Latinos are overrepresented here.)
:: 40% of low-wage workers have a high school diploma, 38% have some post-secondary education, and 5% have a college degree.
I found all those stats useful in reminding myself that low-wage workers aren't stereotypes; they're real people working real jobs, facing real problems. Too much of our rhetoric seems to completely forget that, as in the two representative comments above: Do we really want only the college-educated to have access to affordable health care? Do we really view these people as lacking skills:? Do we really not see the rank elitism inherent in such views of the people who are, after all, a giant part of our economy?
Show me an unskilled and uneducated worker, and I'll show you a worker. In fact, I'll go you one better: I'll show you a worker who isn't unskilled, but a worker whose skills are underrecognized and undervalued by a society that sometimes seems to equate "skill" with "number of diplomas". It's a curious thing that we should build our economy around the efforts of these people and the jobs they work, and then look down our noses upon them while they're working.