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Peter Van Buren, I'm a Whistleblower: Want Fries with That?

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Headlined to H3 4/24/14

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Thanks so much to those of you who chose to support this site by giving $100 for a personalized, signed copy of Todd Miller's new book, Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security, as per the Tuesday offer at this site.  Any of you who meant to do so, but haven't yet, check out our donation page for the details.  You only have a couple of days left!  In the meantime, let me bring another book to your attention.  Today, TomDispatch regular and State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren gives us a unique look at his own unexpected experiences in the minimum wage economy.  That year-long odyssey inspired him to write quite a remarkable "novel," Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, about how that minimum-wage economy helped gut the Ohio town he grew up in.  While it's fiction -- and grippingly written fiction at that -- it's also a powerful portrait of the new American world of un-, under-, and just plain miserable employment in the Rust Belt (which these days could be just about anywhere). Tom] 

Before November 2012, fast-food workers in America had never gone on strike. There was a good reason for that. Many burger-flippers were teenagers in need of a few extra bucks, and thanks to high turnover in the industry, most workers didn't have to stay long in those poverty-wage jobs.

After the economic meltdown of 2007-2008 and the Great Recession, things changed. A disproportionate share of job gains during the "recovery" turned up in the low-wage service sector of the workforce.  The result: a growing contingent of adult fast-food workers who can't find other work. And fast-food wages, which average $8.69 an hour, have dropped by 36 cents an hour since 2010. More than half of the families of fast-food workers are forced to rely on public programs like food stamps and Medicaid to get by.

In November 2012, fed-up workers at franchises like McDonald's, Wendy's, and KFC went on strike for the first time, demanding a $15 minimum wage and the right to join unions without retaliation. In the months that followed, these worker protests spread across the country faster than organizers expected. As Naquasia LeGrand, a KFC employee, told me late last year, she joined the first strike in New York City because workers hadn't seen a dime of the record profits fast food chains are reaping. "We don't get enough respect" was the way she put it.

Low-wage workers face terrible odds. The other NRA, the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies on behalf of the $600 billion industry, has been fighting minimum wage hikes for decades. In recent years, the group, whose members include KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, has more than doubled its lobbying heft on Capitol Hill. Between 2008 and 2013, NRA lobbyists pushing the industry's interests in Washington shot up from 15 to 37. And don't forget the 127 lobbyists who represented nine of the association's biggest members in 2013, up from 56 in 1998. The NRA alone has spent $2.2 million on lobbying since November 2012, and handed out more than $400,000 in campaign contributions as well.

President Obama can call on Congress to increase the minimum wage till hell freezes over, but don't expect even the modest hike he backs to happen any time soon given the opposition of congressional Republicans, who just happen to have gotten the lion's share of the NRA's campaign contributions over the years. In the meantime, folks will keep working three jobs to not get by.

State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren took an unlikely fall into the minimum-wage world when he lost his job in 2012. Today, he gives us a first-hand look at what it's like to subsist in poverty-wage America (as he does in his vivid new novel about the hollowing out of the American workforce, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent). Erika Eichelberger

An Apartheid of Dollars
Life in the New American Minimum-Wage Economy
By Peter Van Buren

There are many sides to whistleblowing. The one that most people don't know about is the very personal cost, prison aside, including the high cost of lawyers and the strain on family relations, that follows the decision to risk it all in an act of conscience. Here's a part of my own story I've not talked about much before.

At age 53, everything changed. Following my whistleblowing first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I was run out of the good job I had held for more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of State. As one of its threats, State also took aim at the pension and benefits I'd earned, even as it forced me into retirement. Would my family and I lose everything I'd worked for as part of the retaliation campaign State was waging? I was worried. That pension was the thing I'd counted on to provide for us and it remained in jeopardy for many months. I was scared.

My skill set was pretty specific to my old job. The market was tough in the Washington, D.C. area for someone with a suspended security clearance. Nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy, and I needed some money. All the signs pointed one way -- toward the retail economy and a minimum-wage job.

And soon enough, I did indeed find myself working in exactly that economy and, worse yet, trying to live on the money I made. But it wasn't just the money. There's this American thing in which jobs define us, and those definitions tell us what our individual futures and the future of our society is likely to be. And believe me, rock bottom is a miserable base for any future.

Old World/New World

The last time I worked for minimum wage was in a small store in my hometown in northern Ohio. It was almost a rite of passage during high school, when I pulled in about four bucks an hour stocking shelves alongside my friends. Our girlfriends ran the cash registers and our moms and dads shopped in the store. A good story about a possible date could get you a night off from the sympathetic manager, who was probably the only adult in those days we called by his first name. When you graduated from high school, he would hire one of your friends and the cycle would continue.

At age 53, I expected to be quizzed about why I was looking for minimum-wage work in a big box retail store we'll call "Bullseye." I had prepared a story about wanting some fun part-time work and a new experience, but no one asked or cared. It felt like joining the French Foreign Legion, where you leave your past behind, assume a new name, and disappear anonymously into the organization in some distant land. The manager who hired me seemed focused only on whether I'd show up on time and not steal. My biggest marketable skill seemed to be speaking English better than some of his Hispanic employees. I was, that is, "well qualified."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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