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Lift From the Bottom? Yes.

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Some time ago, Rev. William Barber II, leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, made a stunning point about the minimum wage: it has taken 400 years for it to go from $0/hour to $7.25/hour.

Op Ed columnist Thomas Edsall recently wondered in the New York Times, Why Do We Pay So Many People So Little Money?  (He didn’t actually answer the question.)

The idea of lift from the bottom as a principle of the Poor People’s Moral Justice Jubilee Policy Platform is a profound challenge to the liberal orthodoxy that has produced and reproduced massive inequality generation after generation.  (The Movement for Black Lives, Vison for Black Lives Policy Platform likewise departs from key assumptions that have mostly failed over a long period.)

To start reversing the effects of white supremacy should we lift from the bottom or lift from the middle?  The distinction is not a matter of degree, but rather an important difference in kind.

Since basically forever, unions, liberal think tanks and self described progressives who normally support Democrats have ideologically and practically cast their lot with advocacy for the middle-class, working families and other identifiers of the middle. How has that turned out? Today, by any metric, we face the greatest inequality, including, the greatest racial inequality since slavery.

How much more evidence do we need that the system created when patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism congealed will keep producing the same outcome?

It’s true that rich people are way too rich.  What’s more important is that the poor are too poor and there are too many of them.  In other words, we should stop reproducing the economics of the plantation once and for all.

Locked-on-zero

Having begun with human labor that received no compensation whatsoever, that is the mean to which employers are still driven to regress.  Over and over and over.  To be clear, slavery was not a wage system or an employee/employer system.  But it was the system that first amassed the capital of enslaved persons.

As Ned and Constance Sublette explain in their essential book, The American Slave Coast: a History of the Slave-Breeding Industry,,  that  capital was itself monetized.  Contrary to popular belief, the domestic slave trade was far greater than the slave trade with Africa.  That trade and the fruits of the labor it established, especially from cotton and textile production, became the bedrock of the U.S. economy in the north and the south.

Race based enslavement, carried out on stolen land, created what is still the floor of racial capitalism.

The drive to pay some of those who do the work nothing at all or, as close to that benchmark as can be achieved, impacts all kinds of decisions.  Obvious examples include:  Robotics and automation, immigration, foreign investment, residential segregation/redlining,  weak labor law and its equally weak enforcement, media treatment of workers and the poor and,  not least,  the worship of all things violent and military.

The militarism is an organic outgrowth of what it took to seize the land and control the enslaved in the first place.  That culture of violence is as strong as it was in the years it was first created.  Actually, that’s not true.  It is stronger today than it has ever been.

That is reflected in all sorts of ways.  But the extent to which the cradle to prison pipeline and the Pentagon are by far the largest component of all government spending is evidence enough.

Locked-on-zero does not just define the floor of compensation.  It applies to working conditions too.

Douglas Blackmon’s groundbreaking 2008 book Slavery By Another Name described the system that came after the defeat of reconstruction that used mass incarceration and convict leasing to drive labor compensation back toward zero.

Later studies have documented working conditions under the convict leasing system that were in many ways worse than those of slavery itself.

Excavations of the graves of former convict leased workers at a site in Texas near the Imperial sugar processing plant in Sugarland, Texas are exposing bodies with shocking work related mutilations.

“…conditions were…so hellish that prisoners wrote songs expressing that they would rather die than spend another day toiling under the hot sun: “Go down, ol’ Hannah,” Imperial’s most famous prisoner, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lead Belly, wrote in one. “Doncha rise no mo’/If you rise in de mornin’/bring Judgment Day.”

Understanding why change is so difficult

The dynamic of locked-on-zero goes a long way toward understanding why any reform at all is so difficult.  No wonder the eight hour day, OSHA and other working condition protections required such intense struggle.  No wonder so much stigma is attached to welfare, food stamps or anything else that would set a floor of income, access to health care or any other standard higher than zero.  No wonder the retirement security promised by Social Security still excludes many BIPOCs including many who pay into the system and never realize a penny of return. No wonder the pandemic has exposed the grim truth that those now called “essential workers” are both poorly paid and have dangerous and debilitating working conditions.

No wonder that capital has so much power and labor so little.  No wonder unions have declined so much.

And yet the unions mostly remain stymied and puzzled as to why nothing seems to work.  Again and again they pour the members loyalty, energy and dues into losing fights to treat political and economic symptoms, not the disease itself.

Their analysis is so out of alignment with the political and economic reality that no other outcome is possible.  Instead of Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz,  Thomas Piketty and Jared Bernstein, it’s time to read James Boggs, C.LR. James, Walter Rodney, Beth Bates, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Frantz Fannon, Ira Katznelson and James Baldwin.

Back to the future won’t work

For recent historical context, consider the brief “golden age” following WWII.

That era is routinely cited and celebrated for the growth of a “middle-class” that could participate in the economy as eager consumers of cars, TV’s, appliances and racially segregated real estate.  With the racially segregated real estate came a robust public education system that favored whites.  Which, of course, also perpetuated the white supremacy way of thinking throughout its curriculum.

During this 1941-1979 era, union growth was allowed and even somewhat encouraged. Because the U.S. won the war it enjoyed a period of global economic hegemony.  Not only was wartime weapons production maintained per the military-industrial complex described by President Eisenhower in 1961.  Additional manufacturing capacity was created to meet the demand for cars, appliances, apparel and other consumer products.

Most of the unions were rigidly for whites only.  With difficulty and much friction, a few unions, most notably the United Auto Workers, permitted some Black membership. These workers too become homeowners and otherwise members of the “middle-class.”

It is important to note, however, that even within industrial unions such as the UAW and the Steelworkers, Black workers, remained second class citizens.  This is what gave rise to the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and later the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW).  Rosie the riveters notwithstanding, women were never fully integrated into unions either.

This prosperity gospel model disintegrated 40 years ago.  It was destroyed by the redeployment of capital in pursuit of lower wages, by the greater power of sophisticated media to define the debate, by the replacement of the union card by the credit card and so much more.  And yet the fumes of “golden age” thinking still power most of the economic conversation within the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party.

Want proof?  Look no further than the economic plan released by the Joe Biden campaign.  As the Washington Post reports,  “Biden does not accept the defeatist view that the forces of automation and globalization render us helpless to retain well-paid union jobs and create more of them here in America,” says a 15-page summary. “U.S. manufacturing was the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II and must be part of the Arsenal of American Prosperity today, helping fuel an economic recovery for working families.”

Is this time different?  Or not?

I have lived long enough to witness the shift of descriptive language go from institutionalized racism, to structural racism to systemic racism.  Progress of a sort.   But do we want to actually do something about it or just fiddle with the labels?

Preaching change is important.  Making change is more important.  And more difficult.  The AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions and organizations should embrace the Poor People’s Campaign analysis and specifically the Lift from below demand.

Some unions, especially those anchored in low wage sectors of the economy such as hospitality and health care, have supported One Fair Wage, the Fight for Fifteen and campaigns to raise the minimum wage.  That is a good start.  But lifting some at the bottom is not the same as adopting the economic viewpoint that prioritizes replacing the locked-on-zero system.

This shift would also require abandoning the longstanding avoidance of directly confronting white supremacy and patriarchy as essential components of the U.S. economic system.  Here’s a mock-up of how messaging that takes a different approach might work.

MEMO TO WHITE WORKERS

DID YOU KNOW THERE IS A FOOLPROOF WAY TO LEARN WHETHER YOUR WAGES WILL BE HIGH OR LOW?

HERE’S HOW TO FIND OUT.

LOOK UP WHAT WAGES ARE FOR BLACK WORKERS IN YOUR STATE.

THE LOWER THEIR WAGES ARE,  THE LOWER YOURS WILL BE.

GUARANTEED.

Learn more at www.whitesupremacyisbadforwhitepeople.com

If not now, when? 

The persistence of gender and racial disparities over many generations during which both political parties have held power is undeniable.  More importantly, The Poor People’s Campaign and M4BL are already operating from the assumption that capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy are inextricably linked.

Unions and other self defined progressive people and organizations should replace the philosophy of lifting from the middle with lifting from the bottom.  Unless, that is, contrary to what they say, they prefer to admit that deep down they are comfortable with things mostly staying the same.  Or, that they are in favor of change only if it is someone else who is doing the changing.

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement.  

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