Everybody says that Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 hit,
"Take This Job and Shove It," is one of the great country songs,
an anthem of workingclass defiance. But what people forget is the bitter realism behind songwriter David Allan Coe’s lyrics.
See, it’s not so much a tough guy’s boast as a working stiff’s fantasy: "I’d give the shirt right off of my back," the song goes,
"if I had the guts to say, ‘Take this job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more. ’" But he hasn’t got the guts and that’s the
whole point. His woman’s crying and he’s got bills to pay, but he can’t afford to confront the bosses who have made his
factory job miserable. In 2004, the same guy would count himself blessed to have a factory job at all. As everybody knows,
the U.S. has been "outsourcing" high-wage manufacturing jobs to low-wage Third World countries for years. I couldn’t help
but think of Paycheck (he died last year) while watching the flurry of media excitement over the Bush administration’s
announcement that the U.S. economy created 308,000 new jobs last month.
Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz was typical
in spinning the numbers as "unadulterated good news for a president who
has been on the defensive over the loss of more than 2 million jobs during his tenure, not to mention good news for the economy."
Unlike many others, Kurtz did allude to the "fine
print," which actually saw unemployment rise to 5.7 percent, and the number
of persons out of work for more than six months hit a 21-year high. Only a handful of accounts probed deeper.
According to the Los Angeles Times, an analysis
by Wells Fargo Bank economist Sung Won Sohn showed that most of the
job growth was caused by a "significant jump in part-time workers for economic reasons to 4.7 million from 4.4 million. In fact,
the increase in part-timers accounted for the vast majority of the increase in employment."
Got that? What’s happening, Sung wrote, is that
long-term unemployed workers are accepting part-time work. Hence, the
statistics also showed a decline in the average work week and no increase in overtime. Granted, working beats not working
every time. But part-time employment nearly always translates to lousy pay, no security and no benefits such as health insurance.
So it would be wiser to postpone the celebration until it becomes clearer exactly what’s going on.
Meanwhile, here’s another economic trend to watch.
According to an article by Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times,
many corporations regularly cheat low-wage employees out of their wages by doctoring time sheets.
Workers have filed lawsuits against Family Dollar,
Pep Boys, Taco Bell, Toys "R" Us, Kinko’s, Wal-Mart and others, charging
they systematically shortchanged employees by subtracting lunch hours they never got, clocked them out without their knowledge
or simply altered computerized records with a few keystrokes.
Wal-Mart officials explained that such practice
violates company policy and that managers who cheat hourly-wage workers
calls "associates" promptly get fired. That’s pretty much what they told the Times earlier this year about Wal-Mart and Sam’s
Club managers who locked associates inside stores for allnight "off the clock" labor, even refusing to allow them to leave for
medical emergencies. Short of an actual fire, opening emergency exits was strictly forbidden. Greenhouse wrote about one
store manager who refused to come in after midnight to let a nauseated associate out of the building. The sick man’s supervisor
was told to give him a mattress to lie on.
Anyway, company policy or not, a lawyer who successfully
sued Taco Bell for shorting workers’ paychecks explained the facts
of life. "A lot of this is that district managers might fire you as soon as look at you," he said. "The store managers have a toehold
in the lower middle class. They’re being paid $20,000, $30,000. They’re in management. They get medical. They have no job
security at all, and they want to keep their toehold in the lower middle class, and they’ll often do whatever is necessary to do it."
Sounds to me like they also may be watching so-called
reality TV shows like "The Survivor" or "The Apprentice," which exalt
a kind of moronic social Darwinism in which it’s every man for himself, and cheating and deception are the norm. Screwing hourly
workers is made easier by the fact that so many are kids, single mothers, old-timers and immigrants (legal and illegal) who are
afraid to defend themselves. Anyhow, here’s the big picture: In 1977 when Paycheck recorded his song, the average CEO in
the United States made approximately 39 times the annual salary of the average employee. Today’s estimates vary between
600 and 1,000 times more. President Bush’s idea of an economic plan is to make sure they get a big tax cut. Any questions?
• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.
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