Rich people get all that money by working hard. It’s a truism, yet, unlike so many clichés, is undoubtedly true. I don’t doubt for a minute that millionaire businessmen and Wall Street bankers put in 50, 60, even 70 hour weeks at the office when they’re not embezzling money, stashing assets in offshore tax havens, and burying dead hookers in the backyard. Yet what’s often missed in the much repeated mantra of the hard working millionaire is the even more elided fact that poor people work hard too, despite stereotypes to the contrary. In a nation that promises rags-to-riches miracles for those who put in the effort, it’s much more often the working poor and sliding-by-on-minimum-wage employees who work the most physically excruciating, back breaking jobs, with the worst hours, no job security, and often no health insurance. And, thanks to a recent article in left wing magazine The Nation, “This Week In Poverty: Wage Theft in the City of Millionaires,” by Greg Kaufmann, we now know workers in Houston, a city with a rising number of millionaires, and in cities across America, are losing money to the tune of $2.5 billion annually thanks to employer wage theft in the form of illegal deductions. (Sorry, but I can’t waste time looking for “balance” by finding a right wing study on workplace abuses, because most right wing intellectuals are too busy having onanistic fantasies about Atlas Shrugged to give a damn about exploited workers.)
It’s not enough for poor people to get called lazy when they can’t find work and to get called uppity when they get a job and complain about low paying back breaking night and weekend work. Now they can’t even count on getting their full paycheck because the employer will call them an independent contractor after 40 hours to avoid overtime pay or dock them hourly wages if they accidently break a piece of company equipment or, if they work in a restaurant, accidently drop food or spill a drink. Sure, these sorts of wage deductions are blatantly illegal, but litigation takes a long time and the rent won’t pay itself while a complaining employee waits to get a settlement from his abusive employer who will have undoubtedly fired him by then. And, yes, it is illegal to terminate an employee for making a formal complaint, but in non-union jobs, especially in jobs where the employee must work directly with the boss, the boss can fire anyone at whim, or at the very least make life a living Hades for an employee while the formal complaint is taking its sweet time swirling around the legal system.
Before anyone starts thinking I took a drink from the Communist kool-aid, I’ll point out that not all rich people are bad. Yes, some rich people truly earn their money. Movie stars, rock stars, and pro athletes earn their millions by being the best in the world at what they do in a marketplace that is willing to pay for their product. Such professions are true meritocracies, where the most talented earn the best salaries. These professions are also home to the Screen Actors Guild and the Major League Baseball Players Association, two of this nation’s strongest unions that fought long and hard and even cost pioneers like Curt Flood their careers to establish employee benefits and put more money in the pockets of the movie actors and the ballplayers, the people who actually generate the revenue, rather than the studio heads and the team owners. Ballplayer salaries seem outlandish, especially in contrast to teacher and firefighter pay, but remember, it was just 40 short years ago when a ballplayer was stuck with one team for life and no negotiating leverage (it is illegal in any other field to prevent an employee from working for a new company after his contract runs out). Top athletes and actors may be rich, but they are not the bourgeoisie, they are not the ones owning the means of production and exploiting poor workers.
If we could follow the example of baseball and Hollywood and get more unions established in lower paying job sectors, we could turn those low paying jobs into higher paying jobs with benefits and job protection and we’d all be better off, even the employers, who always try to pay their workers as little as possible without stopping to think and realize that their businesses in the long run depend on a market demand that can only be sustained by pulling the poor out of poverty and establishing a strong middle class.