How the people of my father’s social network looked on the UAW membership in Ohio–the briar-hoppers.
This is a post about the fight for a $15 an hour wage for people working in Fast Food. Apologies for taking a long detour to get there.
My dad was a snob. You do not need to get me inebriated to admit this. He came by it naturally-his parents were snobs as well. Mom, too (her parents less so, I think). Unjustified snobbishness is the part of 50’s era Midwestern living that Garrison Keillor is usually too polite to dwell on. My family had no especially good reason to be snobs (if anything, quite the opposite), but there you go. It wasn’t their only sort of prejudice; one of their best friends was Jewish, but they constantly reminded people of that fact, because they grew up in an era when ‘Gentleman’s Agreement‘ was a documentary. But dad saved most of his real scorn for farmers and country folk, people who were a common sight in 1950’s Southwest Ohio. In our last road trip together, I sat through a screed about one of their friends in Ohio who married a ‘dirt poor pig farmer’ and what a failure he was compared to his brother the attorney. Dad kept bringing this up, even when I didn’t turn up my nose in solidarity at this errant human being. But I digress.
Anyway, most of their umbrage was toward the folks a lot of people in Southwestern Ohio held in contempt–those ‘briar-hoppers‘ from Kentucky. These were the ‘simple’ Kentuckians and other hill folks who came North to Cincinnati and Middletown, Fairfield and Hamilton to work in the Fisher Body plant and other automotive suppliers during and after the World War. Many of these folks were outright illiterate, many of them were involved in Fundamentalism and Pentacostal churches, and their accents were a weird twist of Southern and Klingon. One of the TV affiliates in Dayton, Ohio had a whole lot of commentators with that accent, and the advertisers were pitching to the Briar-hopper demographic in the early 1960’s. My parents were appalled when my sister came home one day sounding like a ‘briar-hopper’ after spending the day at grannie’s house watching the Dayton NBC channel. And my parents’ social group had the same disdain for the hapless immigrants–I remember one of my mom’s friends complaining that she couldn’t restock the liquor cabinet before a big party because Friday was ‘Briar-hopper Christmas’, a code-name for Friday when Fisher Body paid their union guys and many lined up at the state ‘package stores’. I heard a lot of Polish jokes when I was a kid, but the ethnicity wasn’t Polish–the butt of the jokes was always Barry or Loretta from Kentucky.
So that’s the set-up to the story of higher wages.
If you’re still with me, you should know that there was no issue that got Ohio Republican neck-hairs to stand up in the early 1960’s like the perennial labor strikes conducted by the UAW against local GM and Ford plants. Dad and his pals went nuts about the ‘absurd’ money these mere factory workers were demanding (and usually getting). My dad would be walking me through a store or sitting with me in the car and he’d start going off about strikers, and how they’d lose money because they’d be out of work, and all they did was cause inflation, etc. My dad had taken finance courses in college (dammit) and he could prove to these people it was dumb to strike.
That said, my white-collar, middle-management college grad dad (and his friends) undoubtedly kept up with what ‘those people’ were earning at GM. And I can assure you they knew every penny that the briar-hoppers were earning by putting lug-nuts onto Chevy Camaros, and when their annual reviews came (my dad’s, not the UAW guys), they were always doing the math. “If some illiterate Kentucky Hillbilly is making five dollars an hour popping rivets, I deserve AT LEAST 12K a year!” he would solemnly intone into his Manhattan. And his college buds would nod intently. And my dad’s employers were also paying attention to how those briar-hoppers were getting compensated, too–they knew that appeals to white-collar middle management people that they were ‘better’ than those strikers wouldn’t change demands for increases in salary.
Editorial note–this was where I wanted to insert a link to YouTube so that you could look at Bob Seger’s video ‘Makin’ Thunderbirds’. Unfortunately, Seger’s contract has been bought out by UMG, which now blocks all viewing of his best videos. A topic for another post. So Instead, let me direct you to Bruce Springsteen’s great song about assembly line workers–Youngstown.
Which brings me to the present. There’s a fight right now for raising pay for fast-food workers to $15 an hour. It’s got a permanent FB page here, and momentum seems to be growing. And yet, the vilification this campaign is getting from other working people is breathtaking. Someone posted a picture of a fast-food worker having put up a sign at his workplace reading ‘NO FREIS MACHINE DOWN'(sic) or words to that effect. And the people posting about the plight of fast food workers were all furious that any of them would get even a dime more than $7.25.
As my DW, a very wise individual, put it, if Larry the junior guy in Accounting is making $3 more an hour than you even though he doesn’t really understand how to use Excel and combs his hair with a fork, getting the bosses to cut his salary will not put a single extra dollar in your pay. It doesn’t help any worker one bit to say that their co-worker is making too much money. Because relative to your REAL boss, neither of you are making spit. The people putting together this nationwide campaign on Fast Food have done the math. They’ve looked at the compensation rates of US workers in worldwide chains like McDonalds and concluded that McDonalds can still compete in places like Denmark and Australia, where hourly compensation is double what it is here.
A couple years ago, I called out Papa Johns and other fast food entities for their opposition to providing health insurance for their workforce. If our hypothetical twenty-year old Brooklyn resident Roberto, who gets a cool $8 an hour working at the McDonalds on 42nd Street (which doesn’t blink at a six-figure monthly rent for their NYC locale), won a lottery and got to move to Denmark to work at one of THEIR McDonalds, he’d not only get wages over 100% higher. He’d also be mandated for family leave, paid vacation, and pension. McDonalds in Europe has accepted this as the cost of doing business in Europe. Denmark (and Sweden, France, etc) are all capitalist countries, and McDonalds restaurants there are still making a profit.
And thus, if you’re one of the 93 MILLION Americans who’ve fallen out of the workforce count of the unemployed—if you’re one of the 30 million people employed part-time involuntarily–If you’re one of the people employed in the jobs of the 99% that have persevered–it behooves you to fight for 15. Don’t hide behind class dislike of the poor, many of whom are from traditionally disadvantaged groups. Don’t defend false privilege–“I have a college degree and I’m working as an office temp and I’m only getting $12 an hour. Why should some burger-flipper get $15?” The people who do the employing in this country are not interested in what YOU think you’re worth. If you decide your contribution to the company is more in the $20 an hour range and try to organize your co-workers, the plutocrats at your place will be on the phone to a specialist in Mumbai who can figure out how to off-shore your job to someone there who will earn less than $2. The fast food places are vulnerable because the robots haven’t yet been devised that can run a Burger King (or a Walmart for that matter). They need boots on the ground, and if the people in those boots stand together, the companies have to yield.
It’s in the interest of all of us to see the children of the briar-hoppers succeed in their drive for $15.
(PS: apologies to the sons and daughters of the Bluegrass state and people who have a UAW membership card. I was trying to explain class prejudice, and I thought this was the best way to explain the class and ethnic differences that have always held working people back)