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Thoughts on the Theme — April 2021 — Why we can’t have a $15 minimum wage or a lot of other nice things

A warrior Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower spoke clearly about the link between our military spending (see the back page pie chart for details) and the reasons we choose to impoverish so many working people:

“To amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.” “Making one heavy bomber meant sacrificing 30 modern schools or two fully equipped hospitals, or two electric power plants. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.”

$1.9 trillion to keep life going is too much. $6.4 trillion in the cause of war is never enough

Here is a more recent observation of the same phenomenon. This is Tom Engelhardt’s introduction to an essay by Mandy Smithberger in the March 2 edition of Tom Dispatch.

Strange, isn’t it, what doesn’t sink in. Take this number: $6.4 trillion. There’s a figure you might think should cause a genuine stir (especially since each of those was a taxpayer dollar). In fact, that was what, in November 2019, Neta Crawford of Brown University’s invaluable Costs of War Project calculated that this country had spent on or committed to its post-9/11 wars across significant parts of the planet (and future care for US military personnel damaged by them). By all rights, that number should have stunned this country. It should have caused an uproar. It should have resulted in major policy changes in Washington.

Just imagine that, in the years before Covid-19 hit, when American infrastructure was already going down — “infrastructure week” would become a (bad) joke of the Trump era — the American taxpayer was “investing” $6.4 trillion (a figure you can’t repeat too often) in a series of disastrous wars. They would be responsible for the deaths of thousands of American military personnel and hundreds of thousands of civilians in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. They would uproot millions more and help unsettle the planet. Yet, explain it as you will, they simply couldn’t be (and still can’t be) ended. If that isn’t the record from hell, what is?

Today, Crawford’s figure would, of course, have to be updated as we await Joe Biden’s decisions on future American war-making from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond. And yet, strangely enough, as TomDispatch regular and Pentagon expert Mandy Smithberger reports, Washington, in a remarkably bipartisan fashion, continues to fund the Pentagon at levels that should astound us all. This at a moment when questions remain about whether the Biden administration can pass a $1.9 trillion bill to offer relief to Americans overwhelmed by the disaster of Covid-19. Imagine what those $6.4 trillion dollars could have done, if invested in this country, in us, instead of in those disastrous wars.

$2 extra in three paychecks — just right

This was the fleeting amount that cashiers in an Olympia grocery store got as a result of the highly publicized action by stores in the first, frightening days of the pandemic. Though less celebrated than nurses and paramedics, grocery workers were then recognized as essential frontline workers.

It didn’t last long. Since May of last year, the minimal “hazard pay” stopped and treatment by grocery retailers generally reverted to business as usual, except workers were still exposed to continuous risk of infection, sickness and death. Unlike many who can work from home, grocery workers constantly interact with customers, suppliers and co-workers. Every day they leave work wondering whether they this is the day they will bring the virus to their families.

Grocery workers locally are taking matters into their own hands. With the help of their union, United Food and Commercial Workers, local workers presented their case for renewed hazard pay to the Olympia City Council on March 23.

Speakers named several grocery stores in the area where the commitment to safety measures has faded, leaving workers vulnerable. They named lack of adequate PPE supplies, inadequate disclosure of fellow employees testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, tight and poorly-ventilated working areas and customers who refused to wear masks while shopping – at times berating cashiers when requested to mask.

They asked for an ordinance mandating hazard pay through the end of the pandemic. Councilmembers responded with the information that they have begun to work with elected officials in Tumwater and Lacey to pursue the possibility.

They pointed to the verified record profits gained by grocery companies due to the pandemic – profits not reinvested in the workers essential to producing those profits.

A December 2020 report by the Brookings Institute found that

“While top retail companies’ profits soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.7 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 40% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. With few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs.”

Seattle and neighboring cities have already adopted a mandate requiring grocery stores and large retailers with food business who have at least 500 employees globally to pay $4 per hour hazard pay for grocery workers.

Even so, as we know from reports of the pandemic profits of Amazon, another behemoth, the gap between the struggles and sacrifices of low-wage workers and the wealth they create for their employers and shareholders is wider than ever.

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