In 1970, before he became a blues legend, Stevie Ray Vaughan was working as a dishwasher in Dallas. One of his jobs was cleaning out the trash bin. To do it, Vaughan had to stand on some large wooden barrels, which was where the kitchen crew dumped hot grease. One day, while he was cleaning, the top of the barrel gave way and he fell in.
Luckily for Vaughan, it had been a while since the last grease dump, so the stuff had cooled and he was able to safely climb out of the muck. But shortly after, the crew came in and dumped a fresh boiling vat. Had Vaughan fallen in a few minutes later, he likely would've been cooked alive.
"That's the last job I've had other than playing guitar," Vaughan later said.
This alone could serve as a fine example of the unsafe conditions and other indignities millions of poorer working Americans have to put up with at their jobs, given that most will never escape by discovering a virtuoso talent for the guitar.
But this is the best part: The next day, Vaughan's boss fired him for breaking the barrel. The kid could have been severely injured or killed, and he lost his job for his trouble.
The issue of worker bargaining power has come up more often lately, as policymakers have started to grapple (sort of) with rising inequality and stagnating wages. But paychecks are only one part of the story. When workers have nowhere else to turn to meet life's needs, and when there are plenty of unemployed people waiting in the wings to take a job should any worker get uppity and demanding, employers aren't just free to pay poorly — they're free to treat workers as less than human.
Fast forward 45 years. Shanna Tippen, an Arkansas hotel worker, was recently fired for talking to The Washington Post about her state's impending minimum wage hike. The Post had quoted her as saying the hike would help her make ends meet, and quoted her boss as asserting that the hike was "bad for Arkansas."
Shortly after the story ran, Tippen's boss gave her the boot. "He said I was stupid and dumb for talking to [the Post]," Tippen said. (For what it's worth, Tippen's boss contests this version of events, saying she walked out after he questioned her about her criminal record. Tippen has stuck to her story.)
Over at The New Republic, Danny Vinik took Tippen's story as an opportunity to point out other indignities low-income workers suffer, like Jimmy John's requirement that workers sign non-compete agreements, which is similar to an arrangement Amazon had used until just recently.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Employees recently filed 28 health and safety lawsuits against McDonald's in 19 cities. They claim "the stores don't have basic first aid kits, and managers often tell workers they should treat their burns with condiments instead of burn cream," ThinkProgress reported. National surveys suggest burns, cuts, falls, and other injuries are extremely common in the fast food industry, where underpaid people are placed under intense pressure to work quickly.
Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of ensuring worker safety, is so understaffed it can only inspect an individual workplace once every 139 years.
Then there's wage theft — employers wriggling out of paying workers what they're legally entitled to. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), federal and state agencies recovered $933 million for victims of wage theft in 2012 alone — and that's just for the workers who successfully pursued their cases. By contrast, every robbery reported (not solved) in the nation that year amounted to just over $340 million. EPI determined that if a study of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles is extrapolated to the whole country, wage theft amounts to over $50 billion a year.
Employers screwing their workers may literally be the biggest annual crime spree in the country. Meanwhile, corporations can largely break workplace laws with impunity, because enforcement is spotty and the fines are paltry.
The picture here should be clear: People with power — employers, managers, and owners of businesses big and small — can and quite often do treat the workers under them like disposable widgets to be used and abused and thrown away. And they do it because there are no consequences to fear. Workers often can't leave a job without putting their livelihood and that of their family at risk, and they've lost the institutional backing of unions that could bring the power of numbers to fight on their behalf.
The country needs the fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies to encourage full employment, so that when workers walk away from a job there is always another one to walk into. But the economy can't run hot in perpetuity. So we also need institutions — a child allowance, a universal basic income, wage subsidies, a job guarantee, truly universal health care and more — that give workers an alternative to depending on the market for income. And we need a strong labor movement that can credibly punish employers if they don't give workers a fair shake, and pressure the government to enforce the law.
A change in "values" or "culture" will not help. Some people have been given power in vast disproportion to their fellows, and they're reacting the way fallible humans always react to that privilege. What will change this is squashing that gap.