The working class are obligatory martyrs

Illustration by Killian Goodale-Porter

Adelaide Verdugo-Thomson, Contributing Writer

Heroes don’t wear capes — they walk as instructed by blinding white lights and the impending doom of financial destitution. Our bodies are prescribed monetary value such as $9.50 an hour, $11.50, or if you’re lucky, maybe even $15.

The Living Wage Calculator created by Amy Glasmeier, professor of economic geography and regional planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows that all hourly wages below $15.95 are under the living wage for Richmond, Virginia. Republicans passed a bill in the Virginia House of Delegates in early February to freeze the minimum wage increase at $11 an hour. Despite this bill dying in the Virginia Senate, the sentiment surrounding minimum-wage jobs hasn’t died.

These low wages are excused by describing the jobs as “entry-level,” meaning they require little education or prior experience. However, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, these “entry-level” jobs were essential to keeping those fortunate enough to quarantine afloat. How have these companies been able to get away with paying below the living wage, even when it means workers putting themselves and their loved ones in harm’s way?

The answer is simple: an appraisal of these workers as “heroic” for doing what nobody else wanted to do.

Heroism is defined by acting courageously and nobly. Surely, these workers are heroic for choosing to go to work every day, despite health risks. Except the choice is between working or being houseless and hungry. Workers are threatened with ruin and they have to work.

However, the incessant worried bleating of employees can wear down the psyche of higher-ups. Nobody wishes to hear about the ills of the working class — because it requires accountability. Accountability is too expensive, too exhausting. Instead, companies come up with a cost-effective solution, quickly realizing they can publicize their soothing faux-sympathy via social media.

Tweets calling workers “heroes” or constant reworkings of “heroes don’t wear capes, they wear XYZ” flood people’s timelines. Unsurprisingly, the public responds to this appeal, full of excitement to show its support. The crowd cheers and claps so loudly that its voices drown out the workers’ pleading for a viable form of compensation. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but at least we’ll get paid for it.

Companies have forced their workers into martyrdom. They’ve showcased their workers as pure-hearted individuals rather than facing the painful reality that people must work to live; they will die otherwise.

This has been going on long before the COVID-19 pandemic, with companies supplying workers with just enough hope from the “American Dream” to encourage people to chase that dragon. The working class should not have to choose between death by starvation or death by disease. 

What, or whom, are the working-class martyrs for? I believe companies portray the working class as martyrs for the people, when in reality they are a sacrifice for the higher-ups. Life demands life — the wealthiest wish to experience life so fully that they demand and expect it from the working class. Perhaps the wealthiest can experience hundreds of lives for every hundred sacrificed: vacations to beautiful places, the richest flavors of food and delicate clothes of the finest cloth. All while the working class suffers.

The working class is entitled to better: wages that allow people to truly thrive, shorter work weeks and days, worker co-ops and freedom to unionize and whistle-blow. The working class is entitled to the truth, and for everybody to know the truth.

Suffering is not mandatory to receive basic human needs. The further companies can delude the crowd into cheering, the closer the working class gets to being nailed on the cross. What are the sins of the wealthiest if they demand so many sacrifices from the working class?

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