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FEBRUARY 18, 2004



by Myriam Miedzian


Your ankle is crushed by heavy machinery that another employee accidentally rams into you. You get yourself over to the closest hospital emergency as fast as you can. Right? Not necessarily. Not if you work at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club. Until recent negative publicity forced an end to the practice , night shift employees at some of their stores were locked in for the night with no manager around to open a door in case of emergency. What about the fire exit door? Employees were told that anyone opening it if there was no fire would get fired! In today's economy that was enough to keep most injured or sick employees from opening the door regardless of pain and long term consequences.

We keep hearing that we are the richest and strongest country in the world, but instead of improving, life is getting tougher and tougher for working people. For a large percentage of Americans, real income has declined since the early ‘70s. A minimum salary of $5.15 an hour is bad enough, and now President Bush wants to take away overtime pay protection from as many as 8 million workers including firefighters, nurses, and retail clerks.

Because so many poor people from around the world clamor to immigrate to our country, and many make their way here illegally, sometimes risking their lives, there is a tendency to think that poor hard working Americans are still a lot better off than people in other parts of the world. And while for most of the world that's true, perhaps it's time for American workers to start comparing themselves not to the downtrodden of the earth, but to workers in other comparable advanced industrialized countries.

They might find out that at 22.4 percent, our child poverty rates are much higher than those of Western European countries -– 10.7 percent in Germany, 7.9 percent in France, and 2.6 percent in Sweden. Irish Americans might be shocked to learn that the folks who stayed in the old country are now enjoying a minimum wage of 7 euros an hour -- approximately $8.75.

Salary is only one component of well being. While about 40 million Americans have no medical insurance, in Western Europe access to health care is viewed as a basic right of all citizens---everyone is entitled to medical and dental care as well as low-cost medications.

When President Clinton passed a Family Leave Bill entitling employees to three months of unpaid parental leave after the birth of a child, it represented progress, but for many years, workers in most Western European countries have been entitled to much longer parental leaves, often paid. In Sweden, parents can take 18 months off. A national insurance system provides them with a parental allowance payable for 450 days. Workers whose salary exceeds the parental allowance sometimes negotiate partial payment with their employers. For example, the Swedish Ericsson Telecommunications Company recently agreed to pay these parents 80 percent of their salary for 180 days up to a negotiated limit.

While we struggle to keep Head Start---which serves fewer than one million 3 to 5 year olds---alive, in France, preschool is part of the elementary school system, open and free to all children from age 3 on.
When it comes to paid vacations, Americans get an average of 16 days a year; in Germany, workers enjoy 6 weeks a year; in France, it's 4 weeks. Those long paid vacations are part of what leads to the fact that Americans work an average of 1,900 hours a year, while the French work 1,605, and Germans 1,557.

Polls indicate that a large percentage of working-class Americans believe that they will eventually work their way up the economic ladder and become affluent. Instead of fantasizing about some day being as rich as Donald Trump or Dick Cheney, wouldn't it be more useful to work towards the goal of achieving the quality of life attained by working-class people in so many other advanced, industrialized countries?


Myriam Miedzian, Ph.D., a New York-based researcher, is the author of "Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity and Violence” ( updated edition: Lantern Books November 2002)

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