By Trish Kahle, International Socialist Review, Issue #95
The struggles of fast-food, retail, and other service workers since 2012 have thrust the issue of low-wage work into the national spotlight and shifted the national debate over whether to raise the minimum wage from the federally mandated non-tipped wage of $7.25 per hour. Courageous workers like George Walker, a cabin cleaner at Philadelphia International Airport, have begun challenging their impoverishment as corporate profits soar. “I am over fifty,” Walker said, “and tired of living in poverty.” Walker—forced to choose between paying for his wife’s medicine and covering the family’s housing costs—and other workers like him who have joined organizing campaigns, have highlighted the moral depravity of companies that sweep aside the daily struggles of workers in order to maximize profits. Yet even as public opinion has shifted decisively in favor of raising the minimum wage, the size of the low-wage workforce has continued to grow. Nearly 40 percent of American workers earn less than the $15.00 an hour demanded by the low-wage workers movement,(1) and the experience of low-wage work is a common one.
Still, myths abound about low-wage labor, its origins, and the workers who perform it. The ruling class has much at stake in this fight in which workers confront not only their wages and working conditions, but the ideological apparatus of neoliberalism, which stresses individual responsibility and deregulation.
Neoliberal policies, media myths, and the intersection with oppression that many low-wage workers face collude to keep them marginalized. This persists even as their labor, particularly the labor of those in industries like healthcare and education, remain central drivers of economic growth.(2)
Though the recent struggles of low-wage workers, particularly those in the Fight for 15, have focused on the ideological changes and declining living standards that resulted from neoliberal transformation, Marxists understand that low-wage labor is more than a blip in capitalism’s history. Rather, the tendency toward low-wage labor is embedded in capitalist social relations. As Marx wrote in Wage Labor and Capital, “the more productive capital grows, the more it extends the division of labor and the application of machinery; the more the division of labor and the application of machinery extend, the more does competition extend among the workers, the more do their wages shrink together.”(3) But even if we understand low-wage labor as a persistent historical feature of capitalism, we still have to explain its particularities in the neoliberal period, and what role low-wage labor plays in structuring ruling class economic and political power. As low-wage labor represents a larger and larger proportion of the American working class, the question of the nature of low-wage work, and flowing from that, the potential of low-wage workers to play a central role in transforming society, should be of primary concern for the Left.
What is low-wage labor?
What does it mean to be a low-wage worker in the United States? Workers’ concept of low-wage work is shaped by a number of sociopolitical factors—documentation status, race, gender, geographic location, education level, and previous employment. Subjective factors like workers’ perception of the job market also play a role. Economists’ category of low-wage work, meanwhile, appears similarly malleable with different markers being used in different studies. For the sake of clarity, in this article I will define low-wage labor as any job that pays $13.83 or less an hour, the most common boundary in the economic studies surveyed in this article. We should note, however, that the sheer scope of low-wage work in our economy makes any clean categorization difficult. While no one would argue that it is as difficult to get by on $20.00 an hour as it is on $7.25, most workers in both the low- and middle-wage categories—$13.83 and under and $13.84 to $21.13 per hour respectively—earn less than the estimated cost of living in most major cities for an average family. A huge spectrum of workers in the United States is kept below, at, or very barely above the poverty line.
In reality, for most people in the US, only high-wage jobs —those which pay $21.14 or more per hour—can really be considered living-wage jobs.
Continue reading The political economy
of low-wage labor