Economic Update: How U.S. Workers are Really Treated

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This week on Economic Update, Prof. Wolff pays homage to Mikis Theodorakis, Greek musician and political hero, and discusses Starbucks workers in Buffalo, the economic fallout of Supreme Court's anti-abortion act, what Hurricane Ida fatalities show, and the $8 trillion cost of US wars since 9/11. The second half of the show features an interview with Leila Roberts and Tess Fraad-Wolff on the harsh realities of US treatment of workers.

Transcript had been edited for clarity

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, incomes, debts — our own and those of our children. I'm your host, Richard Wolff. 

This is that season of year surrounding Labor Day. And later today, in the interview portion of our program, we're going to be talking about labor today with someone who just finished a job and who has much to tell us about what it means. And this is a way to talk about Labor Day I think you'll find both unusual and very interesting. 

I also have another comment before we jump into our normal work. I want to pay my respects, to do a kind of homage, to a fantastically great Greek musician who died at the age of 96 in very recent days. His name, Mikis Theodorakis. He was a great musician, a great Greek patriot, a great Greek socialist. He's known for having made the music for films like “Zorba the Greek,” “Z,” and the American police film “Serpico.” He was the creator of many other concertos, operas, songs — very prolific. He fought in the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War, against the British when they tried to control Greece after that war, against the US and their conservative Greek allies. In the fullest and truest sense of the word, he was a working-class hero, and one of the great products of Greek culture and Greek history. If you have an opportunity to listen to the music of Mikis Theodorakis, you will be very glad that you did.

My first update today recognizes that something remarkable is going on in Buffalo, New York. I don't know what it is. Is it the air? Is it the water there? Something is going on. They elected a woman, socialist, to be their next mayor. That was something we commented on. This time I'm commenting on something that became public on the 30th of August, this year, when workers at three different Buffalo-area Starbucks stores petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for a union election. That's right, they got workers at three Starbucks to sign enough cards to become eligible for an election whereby all the workers at Starbucks — at least in those three — can vote whether they do or do not want to be represented by a union. These would be the only three Starbucks stores in the United States to have a union, out of a total of 8,000 stores that Starbucks operates as a corporation here in the United States.

This culminated the effort of 50 Buffalo-area Starbucks workers who've gotten together. They have something called Starbucks Workers United, and it's grown now, if I understand correctly, to about 80 employees across Starbucks. You know, Starbucks calls its workers “partners.” Well, they're not. This is one of those games in which you hope you can get away with giving employees a better title as a substitute for better pay. It never works, but it is an embarrassing part of what corporations’ leaders do. By the way, Starbucks is currently appealing a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board. A judge there ruled that they had improperly and unlawfully retaliated against two Philadelphia Starbucks workers for trying to build a union there.

America is changing. The labor movement is coming to life. And this is one of the ways, and one of the places, long overdue, where that's happening.

My second update will probably not surprise many of you. It has to do with the extraordinary decision of the United States Supreme Court to let stand a Texas law. This now becomes the strictest state, Texas does, in limiting abortions — which is a polite way of saying denying large numbers of people abortions who were eligible to get them before. It reignites the old struggle that's been going on for decades about the issue of abortion in the United States. And I want to talk to you about some of the less well-known aspects of this conflict, particularly the economic.

Okay. First, the World Health Organization produces a statistic: Two-thirds of the world's women currently reside in countries where abortion may be obtained on request for a broad range of social, economic, or personal reasons. Two-thirds of the world's women. In 34 percent of the countries of the world — including, you might be interested to know, Canada, all of Europe, and China — all that is necessary is that a woman request an abortion. No reasoning, no details, no . . . . She wants that, it's her free choice to do that. 

The Texas law not only bans abortions six weeks in — and as many people have pointed out, it often takes more than six weeks for a woman to become aware that she's pregnant, let alone come up with a plan for how to respond to that — the Texas law also provides a $10,000 bounty if you report someone to the local authorities because you think they may be seeking an abortion after six weeks. How, of course, you would know which of your neighbors is doing such a thing, I will leave to your imagination. But it becomes the strictest anti-abortion law in the United States. 

So let's talk about the economics of this. Number one: To force a woman, or a set of parents, to bring to term and raise a child under the law of the United States makes those persons responsible for that child for the next 18 years basically. You are therefore compelling a subordination of women. And I say women because women still do the overwhelming bulk of child care in our society. I find this remarkable, as an economist, because I'm also hearing some of the same political forces that are doing this complain about a labor shortage. Well, you haven't seen anything yet. You're forcing women across this country who become pregnant to leave whatever jobs they may have had in order to do what? Obey the law and raise their children. Their choice not to do that, to work instead of raising children, has been denied in Texas, and the labor shortage is going to get worse. It may not show up right away, but it will, and pretty soon.

It subordinates women. It puts them back into the role of household, mother — not by choice, not by working out some compromise of multiple objectives — but by force of government intrusion. The same people who don't want to lose their freedom to infect other people with a disease, by not getting vaccinated or wearing a mask, have no problem with the government coming in to impose way more restrictions on freedom than ever they had to deal with before.

Next: The Federal Reserve in this country does a survey. And the survey (it does it every year) ascertains how many families could handle an unexpected $400 expense, and how many families could handle an unexpected $1,000 expense. And they come up with stunning numbers. A majority of American families cannot come up with a $1,000 unexpected expense without either selling something they own or taking on another job. Hmm. A child costs way more than any of that. How are American families, currently income restricted, possibly going to do this? And what are you doing imposing this expense upon them?

Because remember: The same people who impose a pregnancy being taken to term are very stingy when it comes to providing social supports for the child after it's born. They're the ones who want to cut food stamps, support for education, medical coverage. What a strange spectacle of economic contradiction. It condemns children to be the children who weren't wanted. And that's a very big burden to put on a child. Just as it's an enormous burden to put on the parents. And the outcomes we know from the history of psychology for thousands of years. This story doesn't end well. It ends up with children and parents overstressed, underequipped; therefore with medical, physical, and mental problems, schooling problems, crime. It’s a long list of social problems we're making worse.

And finally: Rich people will always find a way, if they're in Texas, to leave Texas to get the abortion somewhere else. They always have; they will again. So who is most affected by this? The people with the least amount of wealth. So you know what it's going to do? Make this country even more unequal than it is now. Those are the economic realities that are being pretended away in this debate.

The next update has to do with Hurricane Ida. It flooded the city of New York and much of New Jersey. It killed people — poor people who live in basements that are often illegal. It exposes the neglect of our infrastructure, the failure to save us from the climate, like we are unable to save ourselves from covid and everything else. It's a spectacle of a system in decline, and that has to be faced.

Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has something called the Costs of War Project. They recently issued a research report indicating that the bill for all of the wars fought by the United States since 9/11 — that's basically the last 20 years — now adds up to (get ready) $ 8 trillion, if you factor in (which many don't) the costs for the Veterans Administration handling all of the hurt people coming back from having served in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and so on. When you do the real cost: $8 trillion. A classic example of a society spending money it doesn't have, to go far away and fight a war it loses, and therefore doesn't use all those resources for all of the problems to keep the society going here in the United States. That is a sign of economic decline.

Okay, we've come to the end of the first part of today's show. And, as always, I want to thank all of you whose support makes this show possible each week, especially our Patreon community and other regular monthly supporters. If you haven't already, please go to patreon.com/economic update or visit democracyatwork.info. There you can learn more about how you can support this show. And please remember to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And if you're watching this on YouTube, be sure to hit the red SUBSCRIBE button below. Stay with us. As I promised, we'll be right back with today's special guests, Leila Roberts and Tess Fraad-Wolff.

WOLFF:  Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. You know, it's Labor Day season this time of year, and I wanted especially this time to bring to you a discussion of what labor means these days in the United States — what that experience of doing work, day in and day out, is all about. And so I've invited two people to come and talk to us about it. And I want to introduce them to you now. 

The first is Leila Roberts. She's a junior at Manhattan College here in New York City. She's majoring in psychology and has particular interests also in peace studies and gender studies. My second guest, sitting right next to Leila, is Tess Fraad-Wolff. She's practiced relational psychology in New York City for the last 10 years. She works with individuals and couples, and has trained in hypnotherapy and art therapy. Tess specializes in gender issues and offers an approach that incorporates various themes from an assortment of therapeutic modalities. 

So let me begin by welcoming both Leila and Tess to Economic Update. Thank you very much for your time.

FRAAD-WOLFF:  Thank you. We're glad to be here.

WOLFF: Well, let me start with you, Leila. You're the one who's been working in the way that I want to draw out a little bit. So tell us — as a young person working here in the United States right now, what's been your recent work experience that you can share with us?

ROBERTS:  I recently was working for a large retail company in New York City. I worked there for about a month in the summer. It was not a great experience. I felt that I was very overworked, and my schedule was not accommodated to what I was asking for. I felt that the management was not understanding, and they just did not treat the employees well. And they just were very uncaring and not understanding of what it was to be working a lot of hours — more hours than I was told I'd be working. And the hiring process itself was pretty terrible. I had to wait about a month just to even get into the store. They just were not transparent about a lot of things, which was not a great experience for me, working with such a huge corporate company.

WOLFF:  All right. Here's the way I want to do this. Tess, you're a psychologist . . .

FRAAD-WOLFF:  Psychotherapist.

WOLFF:  Psychotherapist, my apologies. What I'm after here is, tell me from your perspective, what does this do to a person to be treated in this way — without the transparency, without the understanding, obviously being used to make a lot of money as fast as possible, with no consideration for the person involved here, let alone her situation. What does that do to people? You know, the majority of Americans are employees, just like Leila, most of their lives. What's the effect on a person of being treated like this?

FRAAD-WOLFF: There are many. I mean, the exploitation, the disregard for her humanity, the mixed messaging they gave her hiring her for part-time, pushing her repetitively into full-time, with vague implicit threats of being fired were she not to comply with this excessive workload — all of these things assault anyone's sense of self-esteem, anyone's sense of personhood, their sense of who they really are, and how they are. There's threat. There's the vague threat of the employer — who is more empowered, who holds sort of the strings within the relationship — there's a vague threat that's already there in displeasing them. 

So when they push something, the power structure is already shadowing that relationship. That makes somebody already feel disempowered. That's before they get repetitively coerced into things that have already been agreed upon not to happen. There's a feeling of powerlessness that makes us feel small. It makes us feel humiliated. And I think for Leila it was humiliating, it was overwhelming, and it was confusing. When we get confused, we get knocked off center, and we often feel less able and ready to fight for ourselves. So there's a whole assault to humanity there.

WOLFF:  I'm always struck — you know, listening to both of you — I'm always struck that we make such a thing in this culture of being treated appropriately, of having power, of being a free people. But to hear Leila and you talk, right away the first thought in my mind is what kind of freedom do you have if you're worried every minute that you're going to lose this job that you need to make the money to be able to finish your college education, in Leila's situation, and so on. You're not free at all. You're imprisoned in a situation, and then treated badly to boot.

Leila, I'm going to ask you a difficult question. You know, it's kind of the hard one. What would you most want to have changed, when you look back on your work experience? What was it about that that comes to your mind as what you wished would have been different? What were the things that you would have liked to change?

ROBERTS:  Well, I definitely wish that my employers had been more transparent in terms of exactly how many hours a week I'd be working. I was told I’d be part-time, but I was working 40-plus-hour weeks with really no days off. Like four or five days straight I'd be working and then a day off. So I really wish that my hours had been set up in a way where I actually had time to have a life, to do things I need to do for myself just to exist and survive, like buying groceries, cleaning my clothes, having relationships with my friends outside of work. l had really no time to do anything for myself.

Also, they constantly dress-coded me, even though I was in the correct dress code. And it was really only me that they dress-coded. I felt very targeted by my managers. They didn't do that to anyone else but me, and it was hard for me to understand why. And I felt very uncomfortable and ostracized in my workplace, just for coming to work to do work in the clothes I was in. And they asked me to buy clothes to wear at my store instead of providing me with an appropriate uniform, which they had on hand; they did not do that for me. 

I guess also, another thing I would have loved to see was more covid regulations. We were not regulated. I did not feel safe working there, especially with a new variant which does infect vaccinated people. People don't have to wear masks inside the store. And then there was one scenario where I had been exposed to covid through my roommate. And I called them and I told them I don't feel comfortable coming in; I possibly have been exposed. And they told me to just get a rapid and then come in that same day. And I told my employer I'm very uncomfortable; I don't want to possibly expose people. I don't want to go on the train and expose people; don't want to come into work and expose people. And they really just had no regard for that. And that was really insane to me. That made me really uncomfortable, and I did not feel safe in that environment. 

WOLFF:  Well, again, Tess, let me ask you: How does this play out, this kind of treatment? I mean, partly I'm horrified, to be honest with you. And to think that millions and millions of people are being treated like this, literally every day, hustled in this way. So I want to again draw you out about what are the longer-term effects of all of this? And if you had to answer the same question, from your point of view, what would have been the changes you think would have been the most important in the job that Leila had?

FRAAD-WOLFF:  I think the long-term effects basically concentrate on rage, depression, and anxiety. Because it's hurtful, it's depressing, and depressive to be treated so cavalierly. It's very hurtful and upsetting in every way to have your life and health utterly disregarded. You know, Leila was completely dismissed about worrying about possible death and possibly killing other people. That is what we're dealing with in this viral contagion. No one cared at all. They couldn't have been more nonchalant about her literal life-and-death possibilities. Even sickness — did nothing, no regard at all. This feels eradicating to us, anybody as human beings, to be treated with such utter disinterest. And it's hurtful. And so there's a curling-in that we experience when we get hurt, as if from a blow or a punch. We curl in. So that starts to sort of depress our spirit.

Subsequently there's anger, because anger is a really healthy reaction to pain and injustice. And so we begin to get very angry. Why is this happening? Now, if we follow that as an employee, we may not be able to do anything with that anger because of the disempowerment. So we tend to turn it on ourselves, which can take the face of further depression, or we can look for some kind of a scapegoat. It can rattle around within us and feel anxious, like anxiety, freewheeling. We don't feel rested. We have trouble focusing. You know, that can give rise to various disorders. But we stop feeling at home in our own skin.

What I would like to see differently is vast. The first thing, I would like to see unions come back. If Leila were to have a union to which to belong, there could be lobbying on her behalf, to not be exploited from the get-go with forced full-time employment after agreed-upon part-time. I would think that Leila would have gone to the union on several occasions when she was being harassed for a wardrobe that complied with regulations, by seemingly hostile superiors within the job. I think that the basic respect to her time, in terms of covid, her life and sickness would have been respected were she to have union representation and support. So there's there are a lot of benefits that a union could offer in that situation

WOLFF:  You know, I listen to you again, I study the litany of problems in the United States — depression; loneliness; lack of a sense of self-esteem; turning to escapes, whether it's drugs, or whether it's alcohol — we know the whole litany. And yet, here are situations that are literally producing what we moan about as social problems, when in fact something could be done — not of the sort they usually talk about, but of doing something as quickly changing the scene as a change in the work conditions that you face.

So in the little bit of time we have, tell me how you respond to the gap. You've really described for us the gap between what the job actually was and what you might have wanted it to be if it were decent, if it was respectful. What do you think are the effects, long term, in your life, in the country as a whole, from this gap, the gap between what the jobs actually are and what they could, and in your view, should be?

ROBERTS:  I feel, in the long term, especially for me being young, 20, in college, it felt like I had no time to be a person. I felt like all my time was dedicated to working, and it definitely made me very depressed. For the short amount of time I worked there, I felt very isolated. Even though I live with two people, I never saw them. I would come home and go to bed, and on my day off just sleep all day. So I felt very isolated. I felt very anxious about my job and just being in an environment where my existence itself was constantly in question or put down.

So I feel like if I had stayed there, it would not have been good for me. I probably would’ve gotten really depressed and self-isolated, even more than I already was, and just felt uncomfortable in my own skin, because it did make me feel uncomfortable with myself. Constantly having my body looked at, being told what I'm doing with it or wearing on it, is wrong. So I think in the long term, it would have really negatively affected my mental health. Yeah.

FRAAD-WOLFF:  I think there's an overarching sensation of loneliness Leila's speaking to, and it starts feeling estranged from yourself, which can begin depression, and anxiety, and rage, and all of its manifestations that we've discussed a little bit. But I feel like it makes people feel alone within themselves. It makes people feel lonely. And I think it's very important for us all to talk about it, from Leila and on, so that we can remember this is happening, as you said, to millions of people. This is not indicative of anything wrong with anyone like Leila in a situation at all, but rather with the system itself.

WOLFF:  Well, that's the message I try to get across in this program. So you have been really, absolutely on message. Thank you so terribly much. Because it's the part of Labor Day — not the rally, not the parade, not the homilies — but to face what the reality of labor is for most people and why that is so destructive of this society in the ways we're trying to cope with, even though we don't pay attention to labor the way you have helped us do today. So thank both of you.

And to my audience, this is a better way to celebrate Labor Day than I could think of, and I appreciate your attention and look forward, as always, to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Marilou Baughman
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About our guests:  Tess Fraad-Wolff has practiced relational psychotherapy in New York City for 10 years. Tess works with individuals and couples, and has trained in hypnotherapy and art therapy. Tess specializes in Gender Issues and offers an approach that incorporates various themes from an assortment of therapeutic modalities.

Leila Muniz Roberts is a junior at Manhattan College. Leila is majoring in psychology and has particular interests in Peace Studies and Gender Studies.

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Showing 2 comments

  • Dwight Clark
    commented 2021-10-14 15:16:41 -0400
    Greetings Professor, this is of schematical importance, not religious…Solomon- Jedidiah 6 Lions 6 Steps 6 Lions, 666 Talents Gold…Bk. Rev. 666 image of man..God in wrath and indignation. However, God created man in his own image, male female..Gen.1 Gen. 2 Man in garden woman realized- God lost man in his own image. Thus attempt to Solomon Authority in usurption and manipulated applied against peoples, humanity- cannot not buy sell or..without covid pass. Solomon, Jedidiah continues to Hugh Heifner Bob Guciaone Playboy Penthouse, Queen of Sheba- Norma Gene Marylyn Monroe…Your Friend, Taking care of business. Authority of presentation Solomon,
  • Matt Duffy
    commented 2021-10-13 13:23:19 -0400
    Good show documenting the dehumanizing treatment that is unfortunately standard practice for retail workers in USA.

    In my own personal experience, resistance to unionization often comes not only from management, but from certain workers as well. Many are convinced Union will end up costing them more than they will gain, or have otherwise been converted to the secular religion of short-sighted selfishness that typifies certain segments of our current culture. These are the people who have been indoctrinated into a particular notion of anti-collective “freedom” (i.e. anti-government and anti-union) which is conveniently blind to the oppression capitalist exploitation.

    Anyways, it might have been appropriate for Dr Wolff to disclose that Tess Fraad-Wolff is his daughter.
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