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Stop the Peonization of American Labor!
by Dennis Rahkonen
September 4, 2004

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American workers are deliberately being turned into little more than glorified peons.

Their good union jobs have been outsourced to peanut-pay locales overseas, and those lucky enough to find any replacement employment at all must try making ends meet with annual wages averaging $9,000 less than before.

Benefits and pensions have broadly been whittled away to uselessness, or eliminated altogether.

Recent data disclosed that U.S. poverty climbed for the third straight year, as did the number of our citizens without health insurance.

Nearly 45 million of us are medically uninsured, a larger total than the entire population of many world countries. In a high percentage of those countries, however, affordable, single-payer insurance protects everyone.

What an embarrassment for America to be so backward in such a key human regard!

Our shameful decline is humiliatingly evident in other pivotal areas as well.

Despite constant productivity advances, real wages for private-sector employees have fallen 8 percent since 1973. The typical American is toiling longer hours for less compensation, and most middle-class families need two or more breadwinners to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

For entry-level workers lacking a college education, the problem is far worse. Their real wages have dropped over 20 percent during the past quarter century.

America’s income gap is the developed world’s widest, with rich and poor growing farther apart not just in wealth, but in general opportunity and essential quality of life.

Adding insult to injury, the Bush administration has maliciously revamped overtime rules, to the harsh detriment of millions and the concomitant gain of Big Business profiteers.

Here’s how the overtime scam will play out:

In compliance with a wish list drawn up by several of the largest industry associations, the Department of Labor is reclassifying various workers to exempt them from overtime coverage. Nurses, chefs, dental hygienists, secretaries, web designers, paralegals, reporters, pre-kindergarten and nursery school teachers, etc. -- even certain factory workers -- will now be nominally promoted to become “managers” or “learned professionals.”

In exchange for their dubious new titles, those workers will lose time-and-a-half for hours clocked in above 40 per week. Currently, the average employee whose income includes overtime pay gets $161 each week for his or her extra hours.

As stated in a Utility Workers of America bulletin: “These overtime pay cuts are like a giant new tax on working families by a president who, at the same time, works hard to give tax breaks to millionaires.”

Even with overtime, countless families in our low-income, service-oriented economy have been living so close to the bone that any sudden, untoward development -- an emergency cropping up out of the blue -- thrusts them into financial ruin.

Bringing harrowing threats of homelessness and hunger.

Adding unbearably to the crisis nature of this economic injustice is the fact that, under rightwing political impetus, government programs and assistance crucial to the poor have been largely done away with.

To get what they previously received as safety-net protection under New Deal and Great Society initiatives, low-income workers must now pay directly out of their own pockets.

But their pockets are empty, and an intolerable suffering is consequently spreading through the richest nation on earth.

Accompanied by growing anger.

It used to be that each succeeding generation of American wage earners could reasonably expect to acquire a higher living standard than their grandparents and parents knew.

Not so anymore.

In a job environment where anti-union big box employers like Wal-Mart have replaced organized manufacturing plants as the steadily weakening backbone of the U.S. economy, kids coming up have pretty bleak employment prospects.

Most new jobs are low wage. Three-fifths of minimum-pay employment is part time. Given American workers’ huge difficulty in breaking out of that dead-end predicament, our nation is faced with an impending social catastrophe.

According to trends documented by Beth Shulman, in her eye-opening book, The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 35 Million Americans, nearly one-third of U.S. workers will fall within low-income ranks by 2010.

All this explains how Wall Street and its investors can be enjoying lucrative “recovery” while Main Street endures worsening pain.

Rapacious class warfare is being conducted against our wage-earning majority. It’s through their deprivation and opportunity denial that monopoly capitalism is managing to thrive. There is no worse parasitism in the natural world than this sucking of workers’ lifeblood...this blatant exploitation of the many to lavish the unprincipled few.

It’s a colossal sin -- a dreadful result of unchecked crime in the suites -- that we’ve been economically chained to the same purchasing-power status that prevailed when disco ruled the airwaves and we wore bell-bottom pants and platform shoes!

Getting ahead is the American Dream’s core expectation.

But under a politics that invariably favors elites over the masses, we’re hurtfully falling behind.

Workaday wage earners comprise our country’s overwhelming adult majority. In a true democracy “of, by and for the people,” it’s those folks who get up early each morning to go to America’s basic jobs that should determine how the U.S. economy functions, and in whose fundamental behalf.

They would be keeping the great wealth their collective labor creates, instead of seeing it stolen by bosses unscrupulously prospering by hook or crook. Or by being socked with taxes to offset evasive loopholing by the rich.

America itself will ultimately collapse if its workers are exploited to the point where they can’t buy back what their toil produces.

Economic injustice is an issue that rarely gets sufficient emphasis, which is exactly what those running siphon hoses from our thinning billfolds into their swelling corporate coffers want.

It’s time to stop grumbling in disconnected isolation and, instead, begin organizing, bringing together all constituencies sharing a life-or-death interest in seeing that justice finally gets fully done.

Hooking up with unions and taking advantage of their skills and clout is an indispensable part of this remedial process, especially in the lowest, service-sector categories. (Two unions that have won important advances for especially bottom tier workers are UNITE HERE and the Service Employees International Union. Contact them if you’re hurting and can’t stand it any longer.)

“All for one and one for all” is the only alternative to all of our lives otherwise going down the drain, no matter how hard we individually try to stay afloat, futilely splashing toward better tomorrows.

It’ll take a determined, well-organized, seamlessly unified fight to lift us out of imposed, modern-day peonage.

Defeating George Bush is an essential first step to winning change. However, we’d be foolish to pin our hopes solely on John Kerry or the Democratic Party.

We the people will ourselves have to collectively guide the system to make it function for the public welfare and the common good.

Regardless of who wins in November, it’ll take our unrelenting demands for shared progress and prosperity to bring America back from a labor status that, incredibly, seems like something experienced in the pre-industrial period, if not the Dark Ages.

Dennis Rahkonen, from Superior, WI, has been writing progressive commentary and verse for various outlets since the ‘60s. He can be reached at

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