Life in Trump Country — "I make $2.35 an hour in coal country. I want a living wage."
What rebellion looks like in Trump Country, and why people choose selling Oxy over flipping burgers (Spencer Platt/Getty Images; source)
by Gaius Publius
The good wages that my father and grandfather fought to win are gone. I’m 20 years old, and I’m working at Waffle House, getting paid $2.35 an hour ... [W]e don’t need empty promises about bringing back coal jobs. We need the jobs that actually exist in our towns to pay us wages high enough for us to afford basics we can live on.
—Nic Smith, Roanoke, Virginia
At Netroots Nation in 2014 I taped a conversation with economist Stephanie Kelton in which we discussed work in America. She made two interesting points about "bringing back manufacturing" to America.
"Junk Jobs" vs. "Junk Wages"
First, those manufacturing jobs aren't coming back, and they weren't great jobs (as jobs) to begin with. Imagine yourself working an auto assembly line all day. But they became good-paying jobs because of unions and union wages.
Second, there's a way for government to create a de facto living wage in the U.S. without reverting to the country as it existed in the 1950s — make government the employer of last resort.
Click here to listen to the clip; start at about 5:30 for just this section. A short quote:
SK: If [FDR-style jobs programs] were created the right way, and you said, “Anybody who’s ready, willing and able to work, or unable to find a job in the private sector — or if you just don’t like that job — you can come and take this [government] job. We’re going to create one for you at a living wage with these benefits …”My comment to her, just to make sure I had it right (emphasis added):
You create a package for the worker that then becomes the minimum, [which] everyone else has to provide … or they’re not going to get workers. That becomes the de facto minimum. … We’re not going to let you starve in America.
GP: I don’t want this to go by without people getting what was said. … You’re saying that you don’t really need to define a minimum wage, because the government sets a floor. … [Then] anybody who wants a better job than the junk job they’ve got, can work for the government. That forces the private employers to compete with the government for workers, and that’s a good thing for workers.Her answer was yes, I have it right. Note the reference to "junk jobs." What's the answer to junk jobs in the absence of better ones? A living wage — an end to "junk wages."
Unfortunately, Kelton's means to that end — a presidential administration that would implement her "government as employer as last resort" plan — isn't available under Trump, and frankly, would not have been available under any Democrat with the possible exception of Sanders, for whom Kelton worked in the Senate.
But the plan is still right. And the means to execute that plan under Trump — a rebellion against Trump himself by Trump voters whose lives are not getting better — is definitely available.
The Rebellion of Trump Voters
That rebellion, the revolt of Trump voters in places like Roanoke, Virginia — coal country — may already be starting. Consider the following from Nic Smith, a man in his twenties who comes from a coal mining family, reflecting on his life.
Please read, and as you do, ask yourself: Are any of the conditions he and his neighbors suffer under — job loss, home foreclosures, drug-ravaged towns, school closings, poverty wages — likely to improve under a Trump administration? If not, what will people like Nic Smith do?
In this excellent piece in the Washington Post, Smith writes (my emphasis):
[C]oal country isn’t what it used to be. Corporate greed, mechanization and the rise of fracking have forced people in Dickenson County into lower-paying, less stable work. Now 25 percent of people in Dickenson live under the poverty line, and the average income is under $20,000 a year. There are not enough jobs to go around, and the jobs we can get pay next to nothing. Corporations are emboldened to cut wages and benefits with no regard for the working people who drive companies’ profits. Mineworker families have been forced to accept pennies because we don’t have another choice. My family was on welfare when I was a kid, and I’ve seen schools shut down and people lose their homes. I’ve seen neighbors lose their jobs and scrape by struggling to pick up work. Some people I know fell victim to addiction, others turned to selling drugs to survive. Meth and OxyContin have ravaged towns across the coalfields.To the first question I asked above, the answer is clearly No. The gold-plated Trump regime will serve only itself, never the voters who handed him the power he now revels in.
The good wages that my father and grandfather fought to win are gone. I’m 20 years old, and I’m working at Waffle House, getting paid $2.35 an hour and relying on tips to reach the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Our reality goes unmentioned but for every four years, when politicians start knocking on our doors and stumping outside old, shuttered mines and factories. But we don’t need empty promises about bringing back coal jobs. We need the jobs that actually exist in our towns to pay us wages high enough for us to afford basics we can live on.
To the second question I asked above — how will people respond to that? — notice what Nic Smith's answer is:
If the white working class gives in to the notion that the color of our skin makes us more politically valuable ... we lose power against the very forces of rampant greed that wreaked havoc on Appalachia to begin with.And:
I saw the power of working people with the UMWA victory that preserved my family’s livelihood in 1990, and I see it with the Fight for $15 today. Now more than ever, working people must come together and tackle our broken economy head-on. It’s time to go beyond voting to fight for higher wages so we can create growth and jobs in my county and across the country.Shorter Nic Smith — forget color; organize and fight.
Shorter me — Trump is creating against himself the rebellion he rode to power on. And maybe because institutional Democrats are now out of power, some of them might actually join it.