Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Don't Matter If You Do": How A Specious Tradition Suppresses the U.S. Labor Vote

Today is a mid-term election day, with many U.S Congressional seats and some key local offices (including governor of Illinois) up for grabs. There's been a lot of buzz about the likelihood that Democrats will finally lose control of the Senate, which would be just desserts considering their feckless Clinton-era abandonment of the party's New Deal economic principles for the sake of large-scale corporate donor money, not to mention the absurd triangulating goal of out-hawking the revengeful right on issues like crime and foreign policy. The complaint about there being no substantial difference between the two major parties is cliched but nonetheless true; all those so-called liberals only got so mad at Nader in 2000 because, deep down, they know he's goddamn right. I could go on at length about how the major parties' fundraising and candidate vetting processes insure that a supposedly "polarized" electoral polity is represented by two narrow slices of bandwidth that are, for most practical purposes, a hair's breadth apart, in contrast to the diverse array of intelligent ideas that are somehow time and again excluded from mainstream national dialogue. But that's not my main complaint today.

The real reason that I won't be voting today -- the same reason that most of you won't either -- is that I work on Tuesdays, and every election day is on a Tuesday, because that's just the way it's done. For all the perennial pundit and activist hand-wringing over low voter turnout, especially in mid-terms, or on the rise of state voter ID laws blatantly intended to disenfranchise socioeconomically marginal voters, no one on the national scene has put any emphasis or effort into making Election Day a national holiday. The deafening silence around this simple, obvious ameliorative for some of our democratic woes tells me how un-serious all these concerned parties are about really reforming the system to be more responsive, inclusive and, well, democratic. As I pithily put it on Facebook this week, the significance of my vote (or any other working stiff's) is inversely proportional to the number of suckers out there who think that holding national elections on a workday is just fine because ... tradition? Let me break it down for you.

Imagine you're a single mother working a shitty service job for one of those big, profitable corporations that our system of political economy currently works so well for. Election day is coming up and (let's stretch things just a bit so we can give our protagonist some real motivation) there's a viable candidate on the ballot who strongly supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour -- a real, substantive economic policy change that would benefit you, tangibly and personally. But before you punch that ballot for the would-be Rep. Quixote, there's a major obstacle to overcome: Terry the Manager has scheduled you to work from 8 am to 4 pm this Tuesday. (That's 8 hours minus your half-hour lunch break off the clock for a net of 7.5, because shaving that half-hour off your paycheck is not only a reminder that, unlike white-collar employees who may enjoy flex-time privileges and a paid hour lunch, you're not entitled to compensation for any minute that you're not actually on-task. It also helps maintain the useful fiction that you're a part-time worker even though you're spending an 8-hour day in one of your two workplaces, which means neither employer has to offer you any retirement or health benefits, Obamacare notwithstanding.) The polling places open at 6 am and close at 7 pm, which would ostensibly provide ample windows of opportunity to make it to your polling place at the beginning or end of your workday, but there are a couple of complications. For one thing, your polling place is determined by the precinct location of your home, not your workplace, so you have to schedule that stop around your commute -- let's say 45 minutes across town by bus, conservatively -- not just around your punch-in and -out times. In addition, you have kids who need to be woken up, fed breakfast, dropped off and picked up from school, and then fed dinner again before it gets so late they're hanging around the neighbor's house all evening begging for a dinner invitation, making her wonder if she should call DCFS on your negligent ass this time. Thus, your employer pays for your time from 8 to 4 (minus that all-important and strictly regimented half-hour lunch break, of course) but the actual portion of your day required to maintain your work routine is more like 12 hours. And because you're not the only person around who has to put off voting until the evening after work, you know the line at the polling station is going to be very long during that last hour from 6 to 7 pm; long enough that you'll be standing outside in the November cold for most of it, provided you even decide to go at all.

Do you:
A.) Ask Terry for part or all of the day off so you can exercise your right to vote, even though he has multiple, *technically* legal means at his disposal to underhandedly punish you for hindering the store's daily operation or, at the very least, inconveniencing him by demanding a late-notice schedule change?
B.) Try to squeeze the additional round-trip to the polling place into your lunch (half-)hour, knowing full well that you'll be late to return and thus reprimanded -- or even fired -- for certain?
C.) Give up whatever little time you typically had to rest in the evening to wait in line and hope the election judges don't just close the doors on the last people left in line at 7 pm sharp?
D.) Enlist the help of a friend, family member, or neighbor to alter your routine and take parenting duty off your hands long enough for you to vote right before or after work?
E.) Say "Fuck it" and skip voting altogether because it's too much of a pain in the ass to actually exercise the right and duty you're supposedly guaranteed by the laws of the land?

Now, by this point most readers who aren't confined to routines as soul-crushing and restrictive as this poor, hypothetical woman's will already have chimed in with a half-dozen variations of "You Just Need To ...", which is the privileged person's converse to the "Yes, But ..." game. In the original "Why Don't You/Yes But" transactional analysis game, one person suggests reasonable solutions to a problem (e.g. in this instance: early or absentee voting; more proactive scheduling; etc.) and the other, neurotic individual shoots them down one by one because they're actually determined to hold onto the problem instead of enacting any solutions. The forms of verbal exchange are externally identical in each case, but in the former, the person offering the advice is actually the deficient party, because they lack the experience or empathy that would inform them that their proposed solutions are not as easy and reasonable as they seem. The "Yes But" paradigm is rooted in the advisee's inability to acknowledge actual solutions; "You Just Need To," on the other hand, is rooted in the adviser's inability to acknowledge the actual problem -- in this case, a form of systemic injustice whereby everyone has the same nominal right to vote, but only certain classes of people are given enough practical freedom to easily exercise it.

This is where we talk about some of the "hidden" truths revealed by Barbara Ehrenreich's marvelous book, Nickel and Dimed. The irony-quotes around the word hidden are there because she learned many things that are beyond obvious to millions of America's working poor, but few people from that class are able to detail the contours of their experiences in any medium read by the professional-managerial-pundit class, i.e. the people who set the agenda for public policy discourse. So it took Ehrenreich's whimsical and rather unscientific "experiment," working for a year in three different minimum wage jobs, for her and many of her readers to realize, among other things, that millions of Americans can and do work hard every day of their lives with no hope of security, prosperity or comfort, let alone advancement. The most pertinent revelation, though, was that if anything the working classes' most scarce resource was not just money, but time: specifically, time for forethought; time to plan every move of their routines in advance -- commutes, sack lunches, bank deposits, bill payments, everything -- so as to minimize the possibility of incurring missed shifts, late charges, convenience fees, or fines for minor infractions, any of which would be a mere inconvenience for the less impecunious, but potentially disastrous for a household existing on the economic edge. In short, the investment of time and energy necessary to not only research candidates and issues on the ballot, but also to make arrangements to vote without risking incidental economic penalties, is simply not worth it for voters who are already conditioned to assume that their opinions don't matter in the spheres of politics and policy formation. And although I have enough class and political consciousness to know better, in many off-year elections I've been forced to derive the same conclusion myself. (It doesn't help that the biggest office on my ballot this cycle, the Illinois governorship, presents such a piss-poor choice between Dumb and Evil that I'd rather shoot myself than vote for either candidate.)

So here's the deal, candidates, pundits, and would-be reformers: If you're really so worried about the health of our democratic institutions, then defer the uphill battles against Citizens United, crooked voting machines, vote fraud, third party exclusion, and/or voter disenfranchisement, and let working people cast a truly free vote instead of having to beg indulgences from indifferent employers for it. If you really care about the labor vote, simply give everyone the day off for elections, stand back, and watch electoral turnout skyrocket. Once working-class men and women are given the practical freedom to flex their nominal franchise, appropriately representative policy changes will inevitably follow.

Make Election Day a national holiday! Anything else is just another round of "Yes But."