March 19

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times magazine and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast.

McDonald’s might raise its wages, according to its recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wal-Mart is considering supporting an increase in the minimum wage, or at least that’s what spokespeople for the company have been floating in recent interviews (though at other times the company has denied this). It seems that strikes and multiyear pressure campaigns by low-wage workers have some impact on their employers. McDonald’s even admitted as much; the SEC report noted “increasing public focus on matters of income inequality” and worker actions were affecting their public image. Labor organizing, often declared dead on arrival, is having some impact. Even President Obama’s decision to raise the minimum wage for workers under future federal contracts was inspired by seven different strikes by low-wage workers at places such as the Smithsonian and the Pentagon.

Not that you’d know it from stories in Politico, Bloomberg, NBC News and elsewhere. Strikes and worker organizing were nowhere to be found in their reports.

It is probably safe to say that journalists, outside a small but dedicated cadre of labor reporters, have talked to more minimum-wage workers in the past year than in the previous 10. The stories we write can all start to sound the same after a while. Wages are too low, and that spawns a thousand problems. Poverty is expensive, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently detailed for the Atlantic; if you can’t afford a bank account, your pay might come to you on a prepaid debit card loaded with fees for accessing your own wages. If you can’t afford rent, you might be stuck living with that abusive ex. You may be caring for a terminally ill parent on top of your workweek, and when jobs are scarce, your commute might take you two hours.

I say “you” deliberately here, because much of the writing about low-wage workers tends to obscure just that fact — that these stories could well be about you. Too much writing on the left and the right has tended to treat the people in some of the nation’s most common jobs as if they are some exotic Other rather than our neighbors, our family members and ourselves. McDonald’s workers are trotted in to tell stories of hardship again and again, pushed for more detail, asked to lay themselves bare.

It’s a particular kind of emotional labor that we ask of these workers. In addition to the strength and courage to tell the boss, to his face, that you’re walking out because you’re sick of how you’re being treated, we demand that you perform the role of the poor person for us, and we squabble over the right things to do for you. Our discourse on poverty is fed by stories of misery; it gorges itself on tales of cracked ceilings and no heat and feeding the family on a few dollars a week. But this is just another way that the poor must prove themselves “deserving” and for the better-off to feel righteous for helping them.

The right claims that raising the minimum wage will make these jobs disappear altogether and that if they don’t like jobs they’re in, they can get another one. (Perhaps they will like being a home health care or personal care aide, since according to Department of Labor statistics those are the fastest-growing career paths for most Americans, and they pay a whopping $20,000 a year.)

The left wants to raise the minimum wage, which is a good start, and perhaps even endorses fast-food workers’ demand for a union. But too often we — and I do mean to include myself here — erase the agency of the workers, debate whether they’re really demanding these things of their own volition, talk about them as though they are easily manipulated children rather than adults making a decision. We, too, talk about them as though they are not us.

Americans are mostly disconnected from the labor movement — only 6.7 percent of private sector workers are part of a union — and that means we’ve become disconnected from the idea of solidarity. Instead, we have an ill-defined feeling that we should do something for those worse off than ourselves, something that often turns into a pity-charity complex. Rebuilding the social safety net is a good start, but something more powerful would be a real understanding that we’re all in this together.

I heard that understanding in the voice of Alex Shalom, another low-wage worker who stood up for himself and his co-workers against his boss — this time, his boss at Bank of America. “I think people need to know that tellers are just cashiers with ties on,” Shalom told me, placing himself squarely in the same movement as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart workers. The perceived class difference between a bank worker in a suit and a fast-food worker in a logo baseball cap evaporates when the rent comes due, and many of us know what it’s like to do the math of monthly bills and find you’re coming up short.

We need a movement that makes us feel strong — all of us, whether we work at Burger King or Bank of America or an automobile plant or in journalism. That means not just focusing on the poverty but also the power in the voices of a group of workers on the street outside the Wendy’s where one of their colleagues was just fired for organizing. It means giving those workers and their strikes the credit for the wins when they do come. Too often, people derive something that feels like strength from remembering that someone else has it worse. But that’s temporary, and real strength comes from all of us being strong together.