Richard Reeves

A Workers' Bill of Rights

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Sound carries over the calm water of the bay beach here, so as I walked along it early on Wednesday morning, I could clearly hear two young women talking a couple of hundred yards away. One was excited and said happily: "They're going to let me work only seven and half hours a day. I'll have some time for myself now."

Only seven and a half hours? With a half-hour for lunch, that's just the old-fashioned 40-hour week. Nine-to-five, it seems, is not the law; it's a privilege, a gift. Only in America, proud home of the two-week vacation and, these days, fewer benefits and less job security.

Perhaps such thoughts surfaced because I was rereading Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle," a socialist's tale of the abuse of immigrant workers in Chicago meat-packing factories at the turn of the century. The book was one of the biggest best sellers in publishing history, and I was reading it because Sinclair is about to be a subject of the C-Span series on "American Writers."

"The Jungle" is remembered now as the muckraking expose of unsanitary conditions in the food business, the book that shocked President Theodore Roosevelt and millions of his countrymen -- and led to the Pure Food and Drug Act that same year.

But Sinclair never really meant to write about the dangers of tainted meat and bacteria. He meant to write the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of what he called "wage slavery." He was interested in what shameful things were being done to working men and women in the name of capitalism and profit, not in what terrible things were being ground into sausage and canned ham.

"I aimed at the public's hearts," said the author at the time, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

In turn, I began to notice how many stories I have seen recently about the abuse of American workers these days. Out here on Long Island, Newsday ran a week-long series of articles on the treatment of immigrants workers in local businesses. The workers now were primarily Mexicans, Salvadorans, Chinese and Bangladeshi, but the stories of subsistence wages, group houses, and men killed or mangled by speeded-up machines were remarkably similar to Sinclair's stories of what was happening to the Irish, Polish and Lithuanian workers of turn-of-the-century Chicago.

At the same time, by a 16-to-2 vote, the Suffolk County Legislature -- the governing assembly of the eastern half of this prosperous island -- passed an amazing piece of legislation called the "Living Wage Law." The measure's most controversial clauses require contractors who do business with the county to pay all employees, not the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, but a living wage of $9 an hour plus health insurance, or $10.25 an hour without health benefits. The main target of the legislation, in fact, was home health-care and social-care agencies, which routinely pay workers $7 an hour or less.

The New York Times that day also carried a story that showed angry employer-employee tensions at a higher level. That one was about the damage being done in modern industry and business by executives who feel they have been unfairly dismissed in profit-driven downsizing. These days the problem for the bosses is not an assembly-line worker or mechanic who gets even for mistreatment, real or imagined, by throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery, but by computer jocks and their superiors who know the right key strokes to make the machines destroy themselves -- at a cost to companies of days of downtime and millions of dollars in lost revenue.

I don't know whether I find myself noticing these things now because I am reading about the bad old days or wondering about how good these days really are, with so many people working around the clock to keep up their Visa card payments. At any rate, I would not be surprised if the next big thing in politics turned out to be a crusade for a Workers' Bill of Rights.

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