Monday, September 7, 2015
And, The Workers Say
Talking Back: Voices of Color
Nellie Wong, editor
Red Letter Press
Given the recent reports on desperate conditions for service workers throughout the United States, there is no better way to honor Labor Day than to propose you check out Talking Back: Voices of Color. The work offers readers insights into the United States from laborers and a broad assembly of those who see life from the streets instead of ivory towers. The text might be ideal as a reader for writing students, because the commentaries are easily readable and well edited. It is also a chance to hear more from those who live daily with consequences of the social, political and economic policies rather than the competitive cries of paid pundits. Any adult interested in the honest exploration of views on those issues from a wide range of Americans - native-born and immigrant, different genders, races, sexual orientations, ages, and disabilities - is bound to find enlightenment in this essay collection edited by poet Nellie Wong. I did.
If you are closed to the views of those sectors of society, or prone to be biased against the fact that the group behind it is largely socialist, the work provides a chance for openness. No? Then it will not appeal to you.
Talking Back was - and is - a potent force, a crucial step in understanding that race oppression, sex discrimination, abusive bosses, income inequality, poverty, homelessness, and never-ending war were systemic, institutionalized under capitalism to wreak havoc on our political, working and creative lives.
Wong writes that in the introduction as the key lesson learned through the transformation she underwent in the 1970s. As a Chinese woman, she was raised to be silent about her views. The Oakland writer says that as she listened to the many voices of those shunted aside in society she began to grasp that speaking out was a path to change.
Talking Back: Voices of Color is filled with testimony on trending topics as diverse as immigration reform, the Mexican Border, police violence, the Middle East crisis, and workers’ rights. Most of the statements are less than 1,000 words, yet the writers use of facts and reflection give them punch. Interested readers will find themselves saying, “I didn’t know that,” over and over as the commentaries organized under chapter headings such as, “The border crossed us,” make it easier to hone in on the subjects of greatest interest. For example in Chapter 7, “Shaking it up,” retired Teamster Ann Rogers’ contribution, “Still working after 80: Social Security and me,” pulled me into the book. Her plight is one to which many retired Baby Boomers can relate.
“The cost of living skyrocketed over two decades, my Social Security did not,” she explains in the dissection of a government benefit system that provides no comfort to many elderly. At 82, the Chippewa woman still works daily, “because I unfortunately also need food, clothes, medicine, a car, gas, and car repairs.” Rogers makes readers consider how the system doles out Social Security compensation. She talks about the general procedure, then asks readers to think about what that might be like for a working single parent.
A Social Security pension is based on an average of a person’s lifetime earnings. That means low-wage workers get smaller payouts. Rogers started as a waitress then worked for Sears. Her employer’s retirement rested on company stock. When those prices dropped like a boulder off a cliff in the recession in the late 1970s, and she was laid off at age 60, there was little to hope for except Social Security. “The highest 30 years of my wages were averaged to figure my benefit,” she states, then contrasts her underfunded fate with what will happen to those who will have to cope with the even more restrictive policies today.
Now wages are averaged over 35 years, and that is sure to include the low wages most people start out making. For many women, unaffordable childcare means they have to take time off work when their kids are young, and they don’t have 35 years’ worth of wage history.
In the overall, the book is an unsubtle critique of capitalism. The work’s tone is not negative, however. This would be good for personal enrichment or to share with senior high or college writing students to open their eyes to ideas that differ from is usually published in essay collections. Most of the Talking Back authors are literate, yet not professional writers. Their political perspectives are far left of liberal or centrist perspectives found in my social anthologies, and that is one of the reasons the book provokes thought. The voices of color are a clarion call for change.