We talk a lot about workers in this space— at the Center for Working-Class Studies and in our Working-Class Perspectives blog—but for the most part we do it on the macro level: massive job losses precipitated by NAFTA and other foreign trade agreements; the collapse of domestic manufacturing; the Walmartization of America; a stimulus package that pours too much money into the financial institutions that caused the economic meltdown and far too little into job producing infrastructure projects; weak unions; falling wages; vanishing pensions; disappearing health care; fading opportunity.
Sometimes, we’re too focused on the big picture to see how these macro issues affect people in our community. We have a sense that government’s coddling of business is problematic, but do we really understand why? We feel in our gut that a neutered union movement leaves working families vulnerable, but can we truly identify with the moms and dads who lie awake at 3:00 A.M. worried that their jobs may evaporate in a week, a month, a year?
Probably not, and that’s too bad, because if we can personalize the devastation caused when the economy stops working for the working class we may actually be able to solve some of the problems that are steadily eroding the American Dream.
For example, I firmly believe that health care reform would have been easier to achieve if, instead of talking about the 47 million people who don’t have health insurance, we gave the problem a face by talking about the 60 year-old woman living down the street who nearly died of colon cancer because she had no health insurance and could not afford to get the follow-up colonoscopies she needed after her first bout with the disease.
That woman, by the way, is my now 75 year-old mother. She’s a walking, talking advertisement for reform: she had insurance when she first contracted cancer, had it cancelled shortly thereafter, was repeatedly denied coverage because of her pre-existing condition, could not afford the $3,000 per month premium for the only policy she could get, and finally made it to age 65—the point at which she qualified for the government-run health care system that has saved her life repeatedly: Medicare.
If we put my mother and the millions like her who live in every community in the nation out front in the health care debate, would Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck really be able to call reform advocates commies? Would the health insurance industry have any credibility at all after callously attempting to kill my mother and thousands like her every year? The answer to both questions is no.
It’s also way past time to personalize the discussion about the many ways in which working-class taxpayers are subsidizing gargantuan multi-national corporations like Walmart. We’re all familiar with the storyline: state and local governments roll out tax abatements and other incentives to attract the chain. The Bentonville, Arkansas behemoth comes to town and builds a store that devastates the competition. Shortly thereafter the store owners and employees who paid the taxes that funded the abatements are out on the street. Meanwhile, many of the giant retailer’s employees are eligible for food stamps and qualify for Medicaid. Walmart may save us money at the check-out, but we pay for it in taxes and lost jobs. Even though we all know the story, it is for some inexplicable reason, repeated year after year in community after community. Why? Perhaps because the government officials who work so hard to entice Walmart and the residents who breathlessly anticipate its arrival don’t know or have any connection to the people whose lives will be changed forever once the store opens its doors.
So let’s personalize the situation and talk about the new Walmart in Liberty Township, one small business owner who operates in its shadow, and the response of the union that represents his workers.
I’ve known Sandy Zander for a long time. He was my boss when I worked for the grocery chain he helped run. He was a fair-minded and able negotiator when we sat on opposite sides of the table during contract talks, and he’s been a successful small businessman since 1988 when he bought a few stores from the company that employed us until it went of business in the wake of a strike neither of us wanted but couldn’t avoid. He’s genuinely a good guy.
Today, he and his family own two stores: a Giant Eagle in an upscale township east of Youngstown and Union Square Sparkle, one of the few full-service markets still operating in the distressed city. Sandy’s stores are unionized, so his workers earn a decent wage and have health care and pension benefits. For two decades he’s managed to survive despite the fact that he’s competing with non-union operators whose wage cost is much lower than his.
In Poland his main competitor is Henry Nemenz. Henry’s been in the grocery business a long time. He’s always been a non-union, low-wage, no benefits operator who profits by exploiting his employees. His owns only a handful of stores, and the Zanders clean his clock every week. When you drive by the two markets, which are located across the street from each other, you notice two things. First, there are ten times more cars in the Giant Eagle lot and, second, the UFCW is conducting informational picketing at Nemenz. The union is spending a lot of money to let people know that Henry’s non-union. Good for them.
In Youngstown, Sandy’s main competitor is the new Walmart that Liberty Township officials begged for on bended knee. When you drive by the two stores, which are located less than a half mile apart, you’ll notice two things: first, there are a lot of cars at Walmart and far fewer at Sandy’s than there used to be and, second, there is no UFCW picket line even though Walmart is every bit as bad an employer as Nemenz.
Picket line or no picket line, Sandy will continue to dominate the market in Poland. But in Youngstown the prospects are not quite as bright. If people continue to flock to Walmart, Sandy, his store, his workers, and the neighborhood he’s served for two decades could be in trouble. His employees will lose their good jobs, their health care benefits, and their pensions. Youngstown will lose the income taxes they pay, and 30 or 40 more city residents will be added to the unemployment rolls. All because Liberty Township went out and bought themselves a Walmart.
Maybe, just maybe, if the UFCW decided to stand in front of the new store and make sure that people knew that every dollar they spent was putting a neighbor or friend in jeopardy they’d think twice about going in. Maybe, just maybe, if the union decided to air some ads that highlighted the importance of good-paying retail jobs to the community customers would make different decisions about where they shop.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to start fighting back — one township and one worker at a time.