In the final section of the book, Barbara Ehrenreich rates herself highly as a low wage jobholder, but not as a low wage survivor. On the job, she is always punctual, efficient, and compliant, but when it comes to finding housing, she thinks she could have done better. The chapter goes on to discuss the phenomenon of the “working poor” who were created by welfare reform. This new class of workers cannot support themselves on the $6, $8, or $10 dollar an hour salary that is commonly offered. Part of the problem is the lack of affordable housing that is close to work. On a low income, a thirty-mile commute can become a major hardship. Gasoline and other unforeseen auto expenses can create a serious financial emergency. There isn’t much of a way out; corporations fiercely defend their right to pay a low wage. There are many psychological tools that corporations use to keep workers from wanting more. If a worker discusses his or her salary with others in the company, he or she can be dismissed. There are also rules against “Gossip” to prevent employees from forming unions.
It is remarkable how well worker repression is organized in the low wage-working world. Any prospective employee is usually whisked from interview to orientation before the subject of money ever comes up. Orientation serves the purpose of priming the company propaganda machine by building a “team player” or an “associate” consciousness. New employees are actively discouraged from going against the corporate culture or from expecting too much. This degrading indoctrination is often punctuated by psychological testing to ensure that each employee is of the right “cast” of mind and is not out to harm the company in any way. Most employees are pleased when they have passed the personality test on the way to the more humiliating drug test. The investment of time in interview, orientation, and drug screening is geared to make prospective employees extremely uncomfortable about asking for a living wage. After all, why would anybody go this far in the hiring process to break off what could be a lifelong relationship over a technicality like a few dollars? From the outset, the employee always has something to prove, but the company never does.
There are many complicated ideas in this chapter about the relationships among the members of the work force, between the work force and management, and between the workforce and the company. Among the workers there is a code that has to be sorted out quickly. Most employees will watch one another’s back, but nobody likes a “rate breaker.” For instance, another worker once chastised the author for freshening the desserts in the display case for fear that it would become a new management expectation. Any new hire also has to learn how to conserve energy and use exhaustion as a “splint” to get through the second half of a shift. Workers help each other to combat exhaustion, and some of the techniques they develop maximize productivity, but management can never see their efficacy.
The relationship between management and employee is adversarial. Workers are often not allowed to do the quality of work they want to do because of profit constraints or company policy. In another setting, workers were forced to put excessive amounts of stock on the floor and ruin the aesthetic appeal of the department.
The psychology of the American low wageworker is an extremely complex issue. It is a mixture of sacrifice and complaint, pride and subjugation, belonging and being on the fringe of society. As Americans, we are created by our geography and our history, and there is very little escape from our puritanical roots. We have all been taught that there is little time and each of us must do our part for the community. Self-sacrifice is the key and laziness is an abomination. Only under these conditions could workers be molded to not speak for themselves. Our geography of cities and suburbs creates whole sets of outer rings in society. A low wage employee could be an outcast in the very center of the city or in the suburbs where the rich and affluent shop. Invisibility has long been a part of American culture because we have such vast geographic, and, perhaps, economic spaces to fill.