On Labor Day, I thought, what better way to celebrate than to show up for cross-class picketing at a local McDonald’s? The first thing I saw was a line of yellow school buses bringing the picketers from the local labor council to the restaurant, partly because many workers rely on a bus, not a car to get to work, and partly because parking was limited.
I couldn’t help noticing the contrast to the sleek luxury buses that carry engineers around the valley. And what a rebuke to those who equate union political spending with billionaire and corporate spending. I don’t see a lot of CEOs piling out of yellow school buses.
Silicon Valley, for all its wealth, has a serious problem with wage theft. Sure, the county has a wage theft commission which duly finds companies guilty of wage theft and orders them to pay up. What happens next? Some companies simply ignore the legal finding and don’t pay! And no one goes to jail! At this particular McDonald’s, a manager who had broken the law at a different store simply got transferred to this one.
Silicon Valley is the poster child for the new inequality. Most local cities have a minimum wage that is no higher than $10 to $11 an hour (which usually had to be fought hard for). That means that if you worked 40 hours a week (which few retail and restaurant workers can count on), then every single penny of your paycheck would go to pay rent on a $1,600 one-bedroom apartment, the average monthly rent in less desirable areas in this community.
Showing Up Is the First Step
Not surprisingly, the people pouring out of the buses, the ones living at survival level, were mostly people of color, and none looked wealthy. How important, then, that a number of mostly white, mostly professional people, some from churches and some from the Democratic Socialists, showed up to embody cross-class solidarity.
Actions of solidarity go far beyond their material value. Just to feel that for once you are not completely on your own shines like a beacon.”
When you are poor and especially, I believe, when you are also brown, you feel invisible. Your struggles, your wishes, your anguish, really are invisible – or at least extremely low-priority – to most who hold power. And even when the law is on your side, as with wage theft, it’s up to you to enforce it.
As the workers picketed and chanted and gave speeches, I admired their bravery. If it were me, I thought, I’d be afraid the owner would be watching and would pay me back with reduced hours or bad shifts or outright firing. With at-will employment, no reason is needed.
I felt it was crucial that wealthier white people be present to show the bosses and the media that this issue matters not just to the ignore-able, but to the more class privileged. And workers themselves could see that they were not alone, that they could not be crushed without anyone paying attention.
Think Big and Small
While I’m talking about cross-class solidarity, I’ll mention one more example from this group of Democratic Socialists who are about to roll out free workshops to fix people’s brake lights and do other small car repairs. As we know, police harassment, especially of people of color, often begins with a pretext to stop them, a turn signal not working, a brake light out. And we know what can happen next.
Lots of poor people know how to do simple car repairs, but comfortable people are often unaware that even a minor repair, the replacement of a bulb or wiring, can cost just enough that it has to be put off. (Remember that $1,600 rent I mentioned earlier?)
But these actions of solidarity go far beyond their material value. Just to feel that for once you are not completely on your own shines like a beacon.