by Lola E. Peters
While I was working for Macy’s Marketing Department, I observed a phenomenon that continues to mystify me. The union that represented the store associates, those individuals who stood on their feet for eight hours a day to serve customers, was negotiating a new salary increase to $9.00 an hour with a reduction in commissions. Most associates I spoke with were not pleased with the deal, but felt they had few options.
Simultaneously, in New York, the corporate CEO was given a $14,000,000 bonus, in addition to his existing $7,000,000 annual salary, totaling $21,000,000 for the year. Every dollar of his compensation was coming through the fingertips of those sales associates.
Macy’s had at least 140,000 employees, the majority of whom were associates. Each and every associate was contributing a minimum of $125 to the CEO’s annual salary and bonus. Each and every associate was working a minimum of 13 hours each year just for the CEO’s annual salary and bonus. These calculations don’t reflect the salaries and bonuses for other corporate executives.
What would happen, I wondered, if the associates simply walked off the job for a month or two? The answer, sadly, is obvious. Macy’s would have called in non-union workers, including their administrative staff, and the union workers would have lost wages and benefits.
But what if… just imagine this… what if the administrative staff refused to cross the picket lines? What if non-union workers refused? What if there was enough unity in the community to support the striking workers morally, verbally, and financially? It’s happened before, but can it happen in the 21st Century U.S. of A.?
There is a woman’s march scheduled for January 20. Tens of thousands of women will take to the permitted roadways of the world. On a Saturday. They will be politely loud, wave their banners, say rude things, listen to speeches, quote Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi, then go home and have dinner with their families and get ready to go back to their Monday-morning jobs. They will inconvenience no one. They will disrupt very little. And they will be proud of it. Six months later they will begin organizing yet another march.
Some will say that the spate of public revelations of sexual harassment and assault came from individuals empowered by last year’s march. That’s a good thing. Yet how many of those stories were revealed only after the victims had moved a safe distance away from the experience and into a place where they had enough power of their own to withstand liability. Had Rosa Parks made such a choice, had the Freedom Riders made such a choice, had the Lovings made such a choice, had voters in the South made such a choice, where would history be?
Real change requires something the 21st Century appears to be incapable of serving up: sacrifice. Real, solid, willing-to-lose-everything sacrifice. Willing to lose your job, be shunned by your friends and family, be trashed in the media sacrifice.
Throughout history, change came as a result of definitive action by people willing to lose everything: jobs, property, life. When young men and women sat at Woolworth lunch counters in the South, they knew their lives were in danger. They knew they could lose their educational opportunities. They knew they or their family members could lose jobs. Still they decided: sacrifice was critically necessary.
The U.S. abandoned the Vietnam War because people walked out of their jobs, out of their schools, and out of their homes. They threatened to shut down the entire economy of the country and gave no quarter.
Men and women who had had enough of living in fear of beatings without consequences, job loss without cause, and ignorant stereotyping drove the gay rights movement assertively. They were willing to lose everything, even their lives.
Every successful liberation movement demands dedicated sacrifice. Without it, the U.S. would still be a British colony. So how is it that the nation born from a rebellion against unbridled greed has become this timid, tepid, clawless cat that hisses about injustice but never strikes? At what point do we declare ourselves willing to risk whatever it takes to free ourselves from economic subjugation? When do we replace our role as consumers to become citizen/owners again? When do we remember that we pay the salaries of teachers and police officers and demand accountability from them or else? When do we show state and Federal legislatures that our votes are mightier than money? When do we remind businesses that we are the ones who issue them licenses conditioned on their doing no harm to our community? When do we demand they pay their most unskilled workers enough to afford a home? When do we declare greed as the evil it is? When is enough, enough?
So this is my challenge to all who want to fulfill the vision of this nation that was stated at its conception but has never been enacted:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence [sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Decide how much you’re willing to risk. Stop doing the polite thing. Question the rules. Actively defy bullies. As we’ve seen with the outing of sexual harassers and predators, one voice added to another becomes a chorus.
We know that those who currently control our country do so by controlling the economy, so take the economy away from them. Anarchists have the right analysis, but the wrong tactic. We don’t need to break things to shut down the economy, we just need to decide it’s more important to preserve our democracy than to have another TV, more shoes, or buy the newest gadget (no matter how cool it is). We need to withdraw our participation from the system that’s killing us all. And we need to be willing to do it no matter how long it takes and what we lose in the process.
That is my challenge to everyone who reads these words. Quietly, without marches and fanfare, withdraw your support from this economy. Simultaneously, follow the example of the French and the Greeks… there is no question they own their economy because they will shut it down in a heartbeat when the government gets too cocky.
So here we are…
If not now, then when? If not you, then who?
Lola E. Peters is Editor-at-Large for the South Seattle Emerald. She is an essayist and poet who writes about politics, religion, justice, art, and other forbidden topics. She has published two books of poetry (Taboos, and The Book of David) and a book of essays (The Truth About White People).
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Richard Ha