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The Wal-Mart Protester and the Ghost of Tom Joad

Re-examining a classic novel in the era of our growing low-wage economy

When I was a dumb high school kid, I read The Grapes of Wrath, and remember being struck by the countless indignities systematically inflicted upon the decent, hardworking Joad family and their fellow migrant workers in the name of pure financial profit. The outrage and confusion I felt at the conclusion of that Pulitzer Prize winner came rushing back this month as I read about the Los Angeles Wal-Mart employees and their supporters—some of whom put tape over their mouths to protest what at least one striker reportedly called “Wal-Mart’s illegal fear tactics.”—who were taken into custody following a demonstration that called for the store to pay $15 an hour and provide better work schedules. They seemed to be asking for the same things the Joad family had sought: a decent living that might lead to better opportunity, in exchange for diligent labor. The American dream by way of an honorable social contract. But like the Joads, they’re growing increasingly frustrated that one end of the social contract isn’t being held up, to disastrous effect for many American families.

Far from being over, it appears the protesters’ activism is just ramping up as employees at more than one thousand Wal-Mart stores plan to walk out on Black Friday (which actually begins for many Wal-Mart workers on Thanksgiving Day). Those laborers are far from the only ones in the United States disgruntled to the point of Tom Joad-levels of frustration. Thousands of fast-food workers also went on strike this September, demanding $15 an hour and the right to unionize. More than 430 of them in cities across the nation were arrested for blocking traffic and other violations, but they must have found the risk of being put in handcuffs less stressful than allowing the status quo to continue.

Yet that unlivable status quo appears to apply to more and more, not fewer and fewer, Americans in this economy. According to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project, “Service-providing industries such as food services and drinking places, administrative and support services, and retail trade have led private sector job growth during the recovery.”

These low-wage jobs, which max out at about $28,500 a year, contributed 44 percent of the private-sector growth during the past four years. High-wage jobs (those that pay $41,600 or more) have contributed a decent 30 percent to overall private-sector growth, but these jobs also require higher skills or education to enter into. In the ever-shrinking middle is the mid-wage job, “industries often associated with good-paying, blue-collar jobs,” notes the report. In her article about the National Employment Law Project’s findings, The New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey writes, “In essence, the poor economy has replaced good jobs with bad ones.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]That unlivable status quo appears to apply to more and more, not fewer and fewer, Americans in this economy.[/quote]

That dour projection was reconfirmed by last month’s “employment situation summary” released by the U.S. Department of Labor, which stated that though employment rose, most of the jobs added to the nation’s payrolls were in the “food services and drinking places, retail trade, and health care.” Places a lot like Wal-Mart, at least in their approach to compensating employees.

Far from “easy” or “unskilled,” many of the jobs in Wal-Mart’s retail stores and warehouses involve heavy lifting, operating complicated machinery, and tracking millions of dollars’ worth of inventory—not to mention handling sensitive customer information, like credit card numbers. One would think that Wal-Mart (which employs 1.4 million people in the United States alone), as well as many other companies paying employees less than a living wage, would want to employ people to work close to full time, and to take these jobs as seriously as possible. But apparently these companies expect employees to do these important jobs in exchange for the type of hourly pay normally earned by inexperienced part-time workers, and to accept this situation without complaint.

In fact, McDonald’s, on its now-closed McResource site—which was dedicated to helping its low-wage workers (most of whom make about 50 cents more than the federal minimum wage) eke out a living—recommended employees “quit complaining” because it only causes stress. It also offered several budgeting tips, including taking on a second job and forgoing heating to save on bills. It’s hard not to see all the effort (and money) McDonald’s and other corporations spend on quelling low-wage workers’ dissatisfaction without addressing the underlying issues and not think of the vineyard owners in The Grapes of Wrath, hiring more and more people to escort scab workers through picket lines and otherwise insulate the owners from migrant laborers turning increasingly wrathful at the inequity of their situation.

So while I’m wishing for the ghost of Tom Joad to slide down some well-appointed chimneys this holiday season, I’ll also be thinking of the petulant Rose of Sharon: Initially a self-centered young woman, by the end of The Grapes of Wrath (spoiler alert for a 75-year-old novel) she’s attempting to nurse a starving man. Far removed from the sight of the vineyard owners and their lucrative system that caused able-bodied employees to starve to death in the middle of a valley teeming with more than enough food for everyone, she realizes that as monstrously unfair as this is, she has one small chance to make a difference. And the only thing she has to give is quite literally the only thing she has to give, milk that was meant to nourish her stillborn baby. Then, rather than dwelling on the injustice of it all or emptying the ailing man’s pockets to better her own situation, and with no real assurance that it will make a difference in the long run, she goes ahead and gives it. These days, that’s strangely the most beautiful gift I can think of.

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