Corporations find another way to break the poor by fighting unemployment claims

The front of a Wal-Mart Store is seen 22 Septe...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

At the inception of a typical Employer-Employee relationship, there is usually an implied or contractually guaranteed understanding that the Employer bears certain responsibilities.

However, the burden of the Employer-Employee relationship increasingly falls exclusively on the Employee. The Employer scrapes the bone by slashing the safety net, raking in huge rewards, while the Employee is told to fight for scraps of meat out on the tundra.

The biggest Employers, corporations, have enjoyed their privileged class for decades. Certain Fortune 500 firms enjoy social perks like getting to safely shelter their revenues in tax havens so they don’t have to contribute to any Socialist projects in the US of A like schools or roads.

There are also companies like GM that outsource jobs (and sell out employees), chasing the cheapest labor around the globe. Meanwhile, an army of corporate lobbyists has successfully bought off both political parties, and Citizens United now permits corporations to spend unlimited funds to elect the next asshole who will let them do whatever they want.

Another company, Wal-Mart, pays its employees such low wages that they qualify for food stamps and public assistance. And that’s legal. It’s even considered a good business model. Even plantation owners had to feed their slaves, but Wal-Mart found a loophole to that profit suck.

But the folks on food stamps are the lucky ones. The number of unpaid internships is on the rise, causing some observers like M. Patricia Smith, the former New York labor commissioner, to ponder if such free labor policies are illegal. At the very least, it’s a way for the elite to screen for other elites, in the words of Atrios. If only trustfund kids can afford to take an unpaid internship, then that ensures only the rich advance while the poor take jobs that can immediately pay.

These Employers — let’s call them deadbeat corporations — have a cute new way to screw their employees.

With a client list that reads like a roster of Fortune 500 firms, a little-known company with an odd name, the Talx Corporation, has come to dominate a thriving industry: helping employers process — and fight — unemployment claims.

The shady claims that Talx heroically thwarted for the poor, defenseless Fortune 500 firms include

Gerald Grenier, 47, who spent four years as a night janitor at a New Hampshire Wal-Mart and was fired for pocketing several dollars in coins from a vending machine. Mr. Grenier, who is mentally disabled, told Wal-Mart he forgot to turn in the change. Talx, representing Wal-Mart, accused him of misconduct and fought his unemployment claim.

After Mr. Grenier waited three months for a hearing, Wal-Mart did not appear. A Talx agent joined by phone, then seemingly hung up as Mr. Grenier testified. The hearing officer redialed and left an unanswered message on the agent’s voice mail. The officer called Mr. Grenier “completely credible” and granted him benefits.

Talx appealed, claiming that the officer had denied the agent’s request to let Wal-Mart testify by phone. (A recording of the hearing contains no such request.) Mr. Grenier won the appeal, but by then he had lost his apartment and moved in with his sister.

“That was a nightmare,” he said.

(Talx’s client list includes Aetna, AT&T, Best Buy, FedEx, Home Depot, Marriott — which also happens to be one of the Fortune 500 firms with the most offshore tax haven subsidiaries — McDonald’s and the United States Postal Service.)

Notice that it is the mentally disabled employee on trial, while Wal-Mart, the Fortune 500 company, never has to answer for its practices of union-busting, its dismal customer safety record, wage and hour violations, failure to provide healthcare to its employees, destruction of local economies– to name only a few copiously documented complaints.

Sometimes, it really does seem like the corporations are trying to see just how far they can push their poor workers before they snap.

The wealth disparity in the US is at an all time high. The median wealth for a single black woman is $100. For a single Hispanic woman, it’s $120. People are losing their homes, their jobs, their healthcare, and they are buried under mountains of debt. Two million of them are in jail. Half of American children will live in households receiving food stamps before the age of 20, and 14 million American children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Two and a half million more children livinglive in poverty today than in 2000.

Yet, this generation’s New Deal wasn’t created to help the people. It was negotiated in back rooms and behind closed doors for the sake of Wall Street. The wealthy got bailed out at the expense of the poor taxpayers. Unfortunately, as tends to happen, populist anger is directed at the wrong people: immigrants, blacks, gays, while the real crooks — the guys in suits — sneak out the back door.

It seems fitting that today is the 43rd anniversary of Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech because King had a lesser publicized dream to form a Poor People’s Campaign. Ultimately, the movement never got off the ground because certain members feared the goals were too broad, and the campaign would generate backlash against blacks and the poor.

Now seems the right time to attempt the Poor People’s Campaign again.

The thing about corporatism in America is the race to the bottom is never going to stop unless people demand it stops. Corporations’ only purpose is to chase bigger and bigger profits, and if that happens at the expense of employees, so be it. They’ll pay shitty wages, bust unions, deprive humans of healthcare, jeopardize their safety, whatever it takes to earn bigger annual profits. They’ll even harass a mentally disabled night janitor in a nefarious attempt to wrestle his unemployment benefits away from him. Nicely asking them to stop is like asking a Great White Shark to show some compassion.

Democracy itself has been tainted by corporatism. Elected officials don’t work for the people – they work for their corporate donors. The only way to reclaim democracy is by forcing out corporate clients — whether they be Democrats or Republicans — and electing representatives that truly work for the people. (ActBlue is paving the way for how to do this.)

Dr. King understood this. He knew the organization of poor people was key to giving them a leveraged voice in the world of politics. He also thought the presence of poverty in a rich nation like America was absolutely inexcusable. King once said:

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.

I’m always amazed at poor people’s ability to grin and bear their brutal treatment while the rich continuously fuck them. The amazement usually fluctuates between genuine admiration and frustration.

I think the good-natured attitudes come from the poor really believing the myth of the American dream (that one day they too will be rich), which may also explain the Republican/teabagger hatred of the poor. It must suck to work hard for decades only to lose your house or job. The temptation to lash ourout at a tangible “other” is understandable, though not excusable.

It’s much easier to believe a Beck or Limbaugh (two members of the rich, cultural elite who wouldn’t be caught dead in some of the towns in which their loyal listeners reside) — that the State Of The Country is the fault of the Mexicans! Or unemployment benefits! Or Feminists! Or Teh Gayz!

Recognizing that the real problem is huge multinational corporations and their partners in D.C. is considerably more daunting.

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– Allison Kilkenny


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