Republic of Labor


Amy Dru Stanley reviews Alex Gourevitch's From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century in Dissent:

In October 2010, workers at a McDonald’s restaurant in Canton, Ohio opened their pay envelopes to find political leaflets, printed on the McDonald’s letterhead, warning about the upcoming midterm election:

If the right people are elected we will be able to continue with raises and benefits at or above our present levels. If others are elected we will not.

The leaflet named three Republican candidates—John Kasich for governor, Rob Portman for Senate, and Jim Renacci for Congress—who would help McDonald’s “business grow in the future.”

The purpose was clear: to intimidate voters exercising their right of franchise by highlighting their economic dependency as workers. A spokesman for McDonald’s U.S.A. apologized for the leaflet campaign, explaining that the tactic did not reflect company policy. A week later, Kasich, Portman, and Renacci were elected.

Nationwide, more than half the families of fast food workers, whose pay hovers near the federal minimum wage, depend on public assistance programs to survive. Food stamps, earned income tax credit, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) offer a lifeline to employees like those at McDonald’s, according to Fast Food, Poverty Wages, a 2013 report produced by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Low wages and lack of benefits “come at a public cost”—about $7 billion a year, which is what is required to fund these aid programs.

The public cost of economic dependency is nothing new in the American polity. As Thomas Jefferson wrote of the urban working class just after the American Revolution, “dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.” His concern was not with poor relief but with the loss of freedom rooted in property ownership. “The mobs of great cities,” he observed, “add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” The problem was the decay of republican government due to the declension of a citizenry lacking economic independence and therefore subject to political coercion.

Today, workers earning poverty wages are at risk of the unfreedom feared by the founders: equal pursuit of happiness seems barely possible for makers of Happy Meals scraping together a living. The McDonald’s pay envelope stuffed with a political message made all too explicit the abuse of economic power.

More here.