Hello,

Another ZNet Update. 

You can add or remove addresses, as always, on the ZNet top page at
www.zmag.org/weluser.htm

We are adding some new features and facilities to ZNet -- database
features that will improve the timeliness of articles appearing in
diverse subsites and that will also facilitate finding things. 

Try the bio pages...the recent articles pages, and in coming days
various of the watch sites as well, to begin to see the impact of the
database facilities -- things won't look too much different, unless you
examine urls, but you will see some new ease of use and access to
materials, additional links, etc.

We are also working on search system improvements which should be in
place shortly. 

Likewise, we will be enhancing our mailing features for sending updates
and other materials. Among other reasons for this upgrade is that we are
getting ready to send out free updates weekly, starting in the Fall,
rather than less frequently, and to have more links and other content in
them.

By the way, the list of recipients of our free updates keeps growing and
is now well over 85,000. I'd really love to reach 100,000, so how about
inviting all your friends and relatives to sign up on our top page. 

We have many new articles online since last time, as usual, of
course...with emphasis on understanding events in Iraq, the Mideast, and
regarding the economic turmoil in the U.S.

The various debates now occuring on ZNet -- about parecon and
primitivism, social ecology, and marxism are all proceeding apace.

And we have recently added another new subsection providing introductory
material for various areas of interest including excellent articles,
links, and instructionals for people new to studies and activism in
those areas. The link is:

http://www.zmag.org/introtopol.htm

And for today's substantive inclusion...a kind of review interview of
Zneter Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed...


Life On Six Bucks An Hour 

By Rachel Cooke

Four years ago, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich had lunch with the
editor of a rather serious American magazine called Harper's (not to be
confused with Harper's Bazaar; it is one place where you're unlikely to
find Liz Hurley talking about the dastardly Bing). Over salmon, greens
and fizzy mineral water, the pair discussed a few ideas. Soon, however,
the talk drifted to one of her favourite themes - poverty. How, she
mused, does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? In
particular, how were the four million women then about to be booted into
the labour market by welfare reform going to survive on just $6 an hour?
It was at this point that Ehrenreich, who is in her fifties, said
something that she subsequently had more than a few opportunities to
regret (though, these days, she is pretty happy that she uttered the
dread words, as we shall see). 'Someone ought to do the old-fashioned
kind of journalism,' she said, fork in hand. 'You know, go out there and
try it for themselves.' In her mind, she pictured some hungry 'neophyte'
hack with, as she puts it, 'time on her hands'. But, no. The editor of
Harper's, a man with the wonderfully Tom Wolfe-ish name of Lewis Lapham,
looked at her and, a crazy half smile spreading slowly across his face,
replied: 'YOU.' 

And so it was that she abandoned her writerly lifestyle in tropical Key
West and set about living on the breadline. Over the next two years, she
waitressed in Florida, cleaned houses in Maine and worked in Wal-Mart in
Minnesota. First, though, she set some ground rules. During the
endurance test ahead, she was not allowed to rely on skills learned in
her old life; she had to accept the best-paid job available, then hang
on to it for all she was worth; and she had to take the cheapest housing
she could find. It was the last rule that proved the toughest; even the
most drearily basic accommodation turned out to be so expensive that the
term 'trailer trash' quickly became 'a demographic category to aspire
to'. 

Thanks to all this hard graft (luckily, Ehrenreich, the daughter of a
copper miner, is a stubborn old boot), what started out as an article
was soon a book, Nickel and Dimed - and, to its author's astonishment,
it has taken America by storm, rushing up the New York Times bestseller
list. 'Yeah,' she says, in her wry way. 'The paperback is still up there
with Seabiscuit, a story about a horse - a book I've never read but one
which I deeply resent.' A play based on Nickel and Dimed is about to
open in Seattle and a documentary soon to be screened on TV. There is
even talk of a film. 'I want Catherine Zeta Jones to play me,
obviously,' she says. However, in the circumstances, it seems rather
more likely that the role will go to the redoubtable Susan Sarandon. 

By anyone's standards, Nickel and Dimed is an extraordinary achievement.
Though the terrain is depressingly mundane (eating in the 'family'
restaurant of a budget hotel is hateful enough, never mind working in
one), Ehrenreich has produced what is surely one of the most gripping
political books ever written. There is misery - the lives of her fellow
workers are very miserable indeed - but her story is also a page turner.
Will she survive the night in her seedy motel? Will she stand up to Ted,
her odious boss at the Maids? And what will her colleagues think when
she unmasks herself to them? She writes with sardonic verve and has a
woman's eye for the Orwellian minutiae of life in post-industrial
America. 

'That was the biggest - and nastiest - surprise,' she says. 'Discovering
how big an atmosphere of suspicion there was, how much surveillance we
were under. First, there were the drug and personality tests, then the
endless rules. At Wal-Mart, we were not even allowed to say "damn".' She
touches the discreet gold hoops in her ears. 'These would have been way
too big for Wal-Mart. All that was a shock and it got to me. I found
that I could not distance myself from the situation as much as I would
have liked. The work took over. I'd imagined that I would do all this
reading. But I never opened a book, not even a novel. Nothing was really
going on apart from the job, my attempts to make ends meet and my
note-taking.' 

For the duration of her visit to London, Ehrenreich is staying in a
curiously old-fashioned West End hotel where she is a big hit on account
of her propensity for generous tipping (a by-product of her labours in
the low-wage economy). Small and bird-like, she was born in Butte,
Montana, a city whose mines have since been replaced by a vast toxic
waste dump. 

'It was a strong working-class town,' she says. 'I grew up knowing you
should never cross a picket line or vote Republican. We were upwardly
mobile - my father got some education, became a metallurgist and drifted
into administration - but my extended family is mixed. I have one cousin
who is a physician, but I have others who are low-wage workers.' 

Ehrenreich is divorced with two grown-up children, so untangling herself
from everyday life was not difficult. In fact, she was able to tell
prospective employers an almost truthful story: to them, she was simply
another middle-aged woman starting out all over again. Her age certainly
did not put them off. As she soon discovered, turnover in the low-wage
world is so fast that companies simply use people up - literally working
them until their backs give up the ghost or their knees buckle beneath
them - and then spit them out. The poor are unlikely to have health
insurance or pensions, so there is no prospect of retirement. 'This book
justified all my visits to the gym,' she says. 'I was glad of every
weight I'd ever lifted.' 

Her odyssey begins - out of laziness - in Key West. She gets a job at
the Hearthside restaurant ('your basic Ohio cuisine with a tropical
twist'), where she is paid $2.43 an hour. Here, she finds that 'Joan',
whose job it is to greet customers, is living in a van parked behind a
shopping centre and showers in the motel room inhabited by another
colleague. Ehrenreich, alas, is not in possession of a van and so,
struggling to come up with enough funds to pay for her tiny bedsit and
the gas required to drive to work, moves to a different joint, where she
hopes to earn more tips (though her basic pay is still a paltry $2.15 an
hour). At Jerry's, she works with a Czech dishwasher whose digs are so
crowded he cannot sleep until someone else goes on shift, leaving a
vacant bed. 

But even with her new job - and, whoopee, how she loves mixing up those
four-gallon batches of blue cheese dressing - Ehrenreich cannot make the
figures add up. To save on petrol, she moves to a trailer park, closer
to town. Her berth, No 46, is just eight feet wide. Outside is a liquor
store, a bar - 'free beer tomorrow', says the sign - and a Burger King,
but no supermarket or launderette. Desolation rules. 'There are not
exactly people here,' she writes, 'but what amounts to canned labour,
being preserved between shifts from the heat.' A month's rent and the
deposit are $1,100. Amazingly, this is one of the better places she
finds to live. 

'Yes, that was quite cosy, looking back,' she says. It was during her
third experiment, in Minneapolis, that she hit rock bottom and found
herself in a stench-ridden room at a place someone with a sick sense of
humour had christened the Clearview Inn. She had no cooker, fridge or
fan. 

'The curtains were so thin, I could only get undressed in the dark; the
door had no bolt. Anyone could have come into that room if they'd
wanted. Sure, I was scared. I slept in my clothes.' Don't imagine for a
minute that she could have done better than this. Minneapolis has a
chronic shortage of low-cost housing. This hovel cost $245 a week; at
the time, Wal-Mart, the biggest retail corporation in the world, was
paying her a mere $7 an hour. 

In Maine, she joins a national cleaning franchise, The Maids. Ehrenreich
has always done her own housework, so it is with a mixture of glee and
bewilderment that she learns how the pro fessionals do it. Rooms are
cleaned left to right. Steel sinks are brightened with baby oil. The
fringes of a Persian carpet are combed out with a pick. The vacuum
cleaner, a crushing 14lb backpack affair, is used to make fern-like
patterns on the carpets. Worse, the women are worked like so many mules
- except that these beasts are not allowed to stop for even so much as a
glass of water on a sweltering morning. Lunch is eaten in the car en
route to the next house: a bag of Doritos and a couple of Advil to deal
with the aches and pains. 

'I've been asked what was the saddest story I came across,' she says.
'Well, the thing that upset me most happened at The Maids. It was the
last day of a much older woman, Pauline. She'd worked there for two
years - longer than anyone else - but was leaving to have surgery on her
knees. At the morning meeting, Ted [the boss] didn't say anything to her
- no goodbye, no thank you, nothing. I drove her home that day. She was
so hurt. Yet all she could say was: "He's never liked me since I had to
stop vacuuming because of my back."' When another (pregnant) worker at
The Maids falls and sprains her ankle, she is too afraid of losing her
job to admit to Ted what has happened - and her colleagues are too
terrified of losing theirs to join Ehrenreich in a mutiny over her
plight. 

But while the dirty corporate secrets revealed in Nickel and Dimed have
given low-pay campaigners new focus, Ehrenreich has had no comeback from
the companies themselves. 'I gather my book's been a big hit in the
Wal-Mart ladies department,' she grins. 'But so far as the high-ups go,
nothing. I was very careful, you see, not to criticise anything the
company was selling - and their employment practices are increasingly
well known. Only the other day, it was revealed that in some states
Wal-Mart has not been paying workers the overtime to which they are
entitled by law.' Other companies were not identified by their real
names. 

'The only reaction I had at all was from the guy who owned the
restaurant where I worked in Key West. His wife recognised the place and
he invited me out for lunch. I agreed to coffee. I was a little nervous.
I was afraid he might send his lawyers after me. But he was a nice guy,
though I kept thinking how manicured his nails were. He had these
spreadsheets with him. I thought he was going to say he was paying out
so much in labour it was killing him. In fact, he admitted that
everything I'd said was true. He was embarrassed and apologised. So I
said: "Why don't you raise the wages?" But he shrugged that off.' Their
lattes drunk, the only concession she won from him was that he would
clean the employee rest room. 

Ehrenreich ends her book on a positive note, but this is more wishful
thinking stoked with hot anger than a promise (she dreams of a wave of
strikes by an angry, newly unionised workforce). In the near future, she
thinks, things will not change, for the simple reason that America's
poor are so disenfranchised. 'I don't think anybody is expecting the
federal government to do anything. What is Bush going to do about
poverty? Bomb it? It's a vicious circle. The poor don't vote, because
they don't see the parties addressing issues that matter to them; and
the politicians don't address those issues, because they don't think
those people vote.' 

Her experiences, however, have had a lasting effect on her own
conscience. 'I used to have a boyfriend who thought we should have a
cleaner. I couldn't explain why I was opposed to the idea - it just
seemed emotional on my part. Then I did the job and I knew why I felt so
uncomfortable with it. Do I still eat out? Yes, but remember: even in an
expensive restaurant, where the waiters do well in tips, there are still
the dishwashers and the other people in the background. 

'My perception really has changed. Now, when I see a woman behind the
counter in a convenience store, I have so many questions. How long has
she been on her feet? What does she get paid? Who does she go home to?' 

The problem for Ehrenreich now, of course, is how should she follow up
the mother of all assignments. Has inspiration struck? She cackles. 'I'm
trying to convince my editor to give me a multi-million-dollar advance
to experience the lives of the rich. But he just laughs... and I guess
he's right. I'd have a hard time infiltrating that world. I'd have to
get manicured, have plastic surgery. I just wouldn't fit in.' 

More to the point, in conversation she'd probably get into all sorts of
trouble; hard to imagine a sometime contrarian like her making polite
small talk at cocktail parties. She raises her eyebrows, just a touch.
'Yes, there is that.' 


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