Driving a 2002 Honda to work, you stop for gas and search for the remaining pennies you have in your pocket. You never pump to a full tank, allowing only a couple of gallons to get you to work and back home for the rest of the week. You live in the county nearby, somewhere in the woods; since there is low rent in the area, you can afford it. You have a child, and you feel lucky having your mother around to take care of the little one. Paying for childcare is too expensive.
After four hours at work, you take a break and walk around, passing company signs asking for additional help: $17/hr. $2/hr more than what you currently make.
You want to buy a sandwich from the deli, but you realize the prices have gone up and you cannot afford it anymore. You take a bag of chips and on your way out; you see the sign asking for people to come in due to the labor shortage. The pay is higher than what you currently make, leaving you to wonder what you could do with that extra $2/hr.
It is time to either negotiate a higher salary or ditch your current workplace. The mission the company voices to its workers: “Working inside a family does not put food on the table and does not fill the car’s gas tank.” Now, with signs all over town asking for extra hands and employers paying higher than the place where you currently work, you start thinking about asking for a raise or finding alternative employment.
Today, we do not find ourselves in a job shortage, but rather, the opposite. There are fewer unemployed people than employment opportunities available. In August, there were 8.6 million Americans who were considered out of work and nearly 10 million job openings. Today, the working-class American has more leverage to negotiate and to push for better conditions in the workplace.
The pandemic has accentuated the wealth gap—the rich accumulated even more, the bottom 99 percent lost. The trend of consolidating the wealth in the hands of the few is a result of dismantling local industries, moving manufacturing abroad while embarking on a trend of anti-unionism. Unions are now at an all-time high approval rating, but demonization campaigns are still around, making people believe that they operate more like mafia organizations than groups representing the interest of the employees.
With the statistics in mind, you scheme to negotiate your wage. You think about going into your boss’s office, showing him your performance over the years, how committed you were to the company during the pandemic and reminding him that the times are hard. You might decide to press him harder, reminding him about the labor shortage that is happening around town and about how expensive it will be for him to lose you. The cost to train a new worker is higher, and their productivity is lower since they do not know how things work around the company. The boss might budge—he might give you the extra $2/hr, which will allow you to catch up on the credit card payments you missed in the past months due to an unexpected rise in costs caused by an illness.
You exit the boss’s office and feel content, yet the situation is not the same for everyone at the company. Others do not have the courage to speak to the boss. Your friend is afraid of being fired, since she has an ill mother at home and savings have been running short. Another one of your colleagues suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and avoids confrontational situations at all costs, trying not to trigger any negative experiences.
Unless the company decides to raise the wages for all workers in the same group, those people are left with the same wage you had before the negotiations. You think about them and wonder if you should go and ask the boss to raise the wages for everyone in the company, but a lingering thought presses you: “What if the situation grows worse next year, and what if inflation reaches a summit, and I will have to go in again?”
The thoughts prevent you from asking for a raise, but there is something that can help alleviate the pressure off individual shoulders when negotiating wages. The company can actually benefit from a collective-bargaining contract, negotiating it every two to three years with the labor union that represents the workers, and getting the wage raises and additional protections for everyone. You no longer have to go and bargain on your own, the person with PTSD does not have to go out of their way to ask for better living conditions. You go in as a bargaining unit: present your case and exercise power.
The employer will fight back against your proposed 5 percent wage increase, but you all threaten to stop working immediately. They threaten to bring in workers from outside, but you remember the signs around town: everyone is looking for extra hands. They are trying to intimidate you, to make you stop the strike, but you do not give in. The union is on your side: they raised funds for the strike, so you do not have to go hungry during these days on strike.
You negotiate again, and you get 4.5 percent and a bonus of $1,000 around Christmas time. You exercised power and took advantage of the leverage. Everyone benefits in the company, and finally your workplace can start feeling like a family. If the boss is angry, that was not a real family from the start, just an imaginary one.
Take advantage of the leverage! If they threaten to fire you, call the local unions and start suing. You have the right to discuss and form a union. It is not radical to want to live decently and to be able to afford food, gas and someone to take care of your children.
Radu Stochita is a member of the Class of 2022.