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Time theft

You might like to know what the administration’s brilliant new welfare-reform strategy is for women in poverty. They should get married. Anybody ever been married? It does not actually work that way. It might be different if they were drafting millionaires to marry women in poverty, but they’re not offering to do that - not that all those guys are actually marriage material. Most women are going to marry men in roughly the same social class. The wages of blue-collar men have declined dramatically in the last 20 years. So I sat down to calculate how many men a woman has to marry to get out of poverty. It turns out the number is a little over two - which is, strangely enough, illegal.

Anyway, the main thrust of welfare reform is that if you can’t find a husband who will support you then you have to go out and get a job. The thing that fascinated me was the assumption that a job would lift a woman and a family out of poverty. So I decided, reluctantly, to go back to the old-fashioned kind of journalism and try this for myself. I ended up going to three different cities. I took the best-paying jobs that I could find without using my actual educational credentials and experience - not that I ever saw a Help Wanted ad for a political essayist, especially not for a left-wing political essayist.

I ended up working as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a maid with a house-cleaning service, a nursing-home maid and a WalMart Associate. There are no employees in WalMart. You may have noticed this trend. There are no employees anywhere in America now. Everybody is a ‘team member’ or an ‘associate’, as if you’re going to sit down with the board of directors over your lunch.

It’s not that easy to get a job at WalMart. First you’ve got to take a drug test. I don’t know how you all feel about drugs and the illegality of drugs. Maybe you’re one of those people who believes that reality is at all times always better than drugs. To which I would say to you: then for Christ’s sake upgrade reality! More to the point, a big study a couple of years ago showed that drug testing does not do the things it is supposed to do: it doesn’t reduce absenteeism; it doesn’t reduce accidents; it doesn’t increase productivity. So why do they do it? Because it’s a little ritual of humiliation to get you into the mood for the job.

Personality test

Then you’ve got the personality test. You are required to complete: ‘In the last year I have stolen [check dollar amount below] from my employers.’ They’re very concerned that you’ve never stolen anything, that you’ve never taken any illegal substance, that you would rat on any co-worker you ever saw doing anything wrong.

I actually got one question wrong. ‘Agree or disagree: all rules must be followed to the letter at all times.’ Well now, I didn’t want to look like too much of a suck-up, so I only agreed ‘strongly’ rather than ‘totally’. So this personnel director goes off and grades my personality on a computer, she comes back to me and says: ‘You’ve got this wrong. The correct answer is "totally".’ Showing that you can never be too much of a suck-up at WalMart. I did some fast talking on that one. I got the job, finally.

After that you’ve got an eight-hour ‘orientation’ session. This is really more like a cult than a corporation. You’re introduced to the rules, like ‘no time theft’. I thought that was a science-fiction concept. But no, ‘time theft’ means doing anything other than going to the bathroom when you’re supposed to be on company time. They also show you a 12-minute video explaining how evil unions are. You have to sit in total silence.

I was in ladies’ wear, and I thought well, that will be nice, I’ll be giving fashion tips to the ladies of Minnesota. Not like that at all. It’s a matter of constantly picking up things that are thrown on the floor, putting them in exact places, memorizing the locations of hundreds of items. By the way, after these experiences I will never again call any job ‘unskilled’. Every job takes intelligence and skill and a lot of concentration. There are no unskilled jobs and there are no unskilled people. It was physically exhausting. All these jobs are physically exhausting.

For this I got $7 an hour. Compare that to the CEO of WalMart, who made $20 million in 2001. Seven dollars an hour gets you roughly $12,000 a year. In other words, someone at my level would have to work over 1,000 years, over a millennium, to make what this CEO makes in one year.

I could not make ends meet on wages like that. The thing that undid me completely was rents. Rents are out of control. Even when the economy turns down, the rents keep going up. In the cities I went to there was often nothing under $800 a month. So I couldn’t do it. And I had a lot of advantages over many people in the low-wage job market who are there for real, for their whole lives. I didn’t have any kids with me to support and raise. (I tried to get my kids to come with me, but I don’t know what it is, when they get to over 20 or something they just don’t want to go live with mum in a trailer park anymore.) I had other advantages. I’m white. I’m English-speaking. I’m sorry to say I think that white part is still an advantage in the labor market, for getting your foot in the door. It shouldn’t be that way, but that was the definite impression.

What I concluded from this is that there is something really, really wrong when you can work full-time, year-round, very hard, and not make ends meet. I think it is a scandal that approximately 30 per cent of Americans cannot make it off the wages they work for. For so long we’ve heard from conservative politicians and corporate leadership about the importance of the work ethic. Well, where is the pay ethic to go with that?

Just in the last few weeks I’ve been looking back at all these experiences of mine in the light of the corporate crime wave which we now know about, the exposés about Enron, Adelphi, WorldCom. I would add that WalMart belongs in that list too.

No pay at all

A few weeks back there was an exposé in the _New York Times_ of labor practices at WalMart, confirming some of the things that I heard from my co-workers there but I found hard to believe. For example, WalMart doesn’t pay overtime. I don’t mean they don’t pay time-and-a-half. I mean they don’t pay you _anything_. People in six states have now brought allegations of being in a WalMart store and having the managers lock all the employees in, saying you’re not going until the work is done and everything has been put away - for which you get no pay.

That makes me think back to that idea of ‘time theft’. This is time theft on a mass scale. This is the employer of many people we all know. It’s a place where we’ve all probably shopped at one time or another. This is a corporate crime right up there with Enron and the rest of them. Investors are not the only victims of corporate crime. Every day, workers are the victims of corporate crime.

All this made me realize, thinking back to those personality tests and drug tests, that we have got a two-tier system of morality in America. If you’re an ordinary person you’ve got to be an absolute straight arrow. You’ve got to pass that drug test. You’ve got to promise that you will never, ever do anything wrong, and that you never have. I’m sure that the same kind of tests apply if you are - or were, I should say - a low-level employee at a place like Enron. But if you’re high up, close to the CEO level, you can do whatever you damn well please. If you steal $50 you’re going to lose your job and you’re going to jail. If you steal $50 million you’re going to live in luxury for the rest of your life. If you put graffiti on a wall you go to juvenile center. If you despoil a whole town, if you wreck the environment for thousands of people, somebody’s going to describe you as an entrepreneurial genius.

The Attorney General wants us to start informing on each other, through the new TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System)program. You’re supposed to watch out for unusual behaviour and get to that ‘enemy within’ in this way.

Mr Ashcroft, wherever you are, I have a tip for you. I have identified the enemy within. For so many years now the affluent and their paid hacks at the various right-wing think tanks have denounced, over and over again, the so-called underclass - the ‘welfare-lovers’, the people of color, the low-wage workers - as dishonest, immoral, a burden on society. Well, it’s the overclass that is the dishonest, criminal and corrupt burden on society.

When the powerful start acting irresponsibly then it is the responsibility of the rest of us to take power.

*Barbara Ehrenreich* is a celebrated essayist. The experiences on which this piece are based came from the research for her best-selling book, _Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America_, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2001. This is an edited version, reproduced with permission, of her address to the Rolling Thunder Downhome Democracy Tour in Tucson, Arizona, on 27 July 2002.

New Internationalist issue 351 magazine cover This article is from the November 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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