But “Liza on Demand” is set in 2019 Los Angeles, it’s on YouTube and it’s the best indictment of the stupid, impossible world America has created for its working class.
Liza works in the gig economy — driving for Uber, hiring herself out as a mover or a cookie-maker. It’s labeled as “gig economy comedy,” but get past the campy jokes and her Lucille Ball misadventures and it’s a startling call to action for a renewed and fierce labor movement in a nation where a steady job with decent benefits is becoming a unicorn.
This Labor Day weekend, after we’re done planning the picnic and the best route around the holiday traffic, let’s take a moment to see where the American worker ranks in today’s economy.
It was 150 years ago this year — in 1869 — that some Philadelphia tailors came up with radical, utopian ideas about what it should be like to work in our post-Civil War nation: an eight-hour workday. Equal pay for equal work for both sexes. A proper share of the wealth the work has created.
Those were some of the goals of the Knights of Labor, a secret society that was essentially the nation’s first labor organization.
“The recent alarming development and aggression of aggregated wealth, which, unless checked, will invariably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses, render it imperative, if we desire to enjoy the blessings of life, that a check should be placed upon its power and upon unjust accumulation,” began the preamble of the Knights.
The Knights faded away, but they began a movement that’s just as crucial today as it was in 1869.
The federal minimum wage stands at poverty level, $7.25 an hour.
We’re nowhere near equal pay for women and men.
And although the number is hard to pin down, a recent Gallup survey found that more than a third of the American workforce has been swallowed up by the gig economy. That’s a lot of free agents with few or no safety nets out there.
Right here in Washington, it’s clear that what was once the safest, most stable and cautious place for the super-safe worker to join — the federal workforce — is a precarious gamble.
This year, we saw the steak-and-cocktail Capitol Hill crowd use workers as political footballs in the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Workers from diplomats to security guards went 35 days without pay. Almost forgot about that, didn’t you?
“We’re going to food banks. I am going to McDonald’s trying to apply for a job. I’m going everywhere, I don’t even have a watch because I went to the pawnshop giving my jewelry away just to make ends meet, and I have my rent coming up and I have no money to pay for it,” Faye Smith, a security guard at the Smithsonian, said during the shutdown in January.
GoFundMe was filled with proud workers such as Smith explaining how ashamed they were to ask for $10 or $20 donations to help pay mortgage, college tuition or medical expenses when their paychecks stopped coming at a time in their lives when they were vulnerable. Smith received a lot of donations after her story appeared on local TV. At least 1,000 other workers got zero, their tales of woe and dead fundraising accounts haunting the Internet.
The folks who passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, a law that forbids federal workers from striking, apparently didn’t envision a Congress that would abuse the shutdown as often as our elected officials abuse it today.
A lot of the federal workers survived with a side hustle — the gig economy. And this may be a huge part of their future as this administration makes more moves to shrink the federal workforce.
When it comes to the gig economy, there are plenty of discussions about whether folks like Liza should be able to demand better working conditions. Darn straight we need to pay attention to Liza.
Out West, eight out of 10 Uber drivers who talked to professors studying this at the University of California at Los Angeles told them that heck yeah, they’d like some protection.
Don’t turn off on this, because it’s a lot more than Uber drivers who are part of this new age of labor rights discussion.
The folks at the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a massive study on the gig economy that came up with the startling conclusion that “94 percent of the net employment growth in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015 appears to have occurred in alternative work arrangements.”
That means most of the new jobs out there now — and the jobs many of our kids will have — are gigs, whether they’re analysts, coders or dog walkers.
Time to start thinking again about what the Knights demanded 150 years ago.