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This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

In normal times, Dee from New York would have ordered her copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from Amazon, but these are not normal times. Amazon is on the Grab Your Wallet list, a campaign to boycott retailers that sell Trump family products, which began as a response to the video revealing our now-president’s penchant for grabbing women "by the pussy." Dee bought her book from a smaller retailer instead.

Since Donald Trump’s election in November, and especially since his January inauguration, hundreds of small and not-so-small organizations have sprung up to oppose the president.  They joined the ranks of established left-leaning and liberal groups already revving up their engines to fight the administration. Among all the ways you can now voice your dissent, though, there’s one tactic that this president will surely understand: economic resistance aimed at his own businesses and those of his children. He may not be swayed by protesters filling the streets, but he does speak the language of money. Through a host of tactics — including boycotting stores that carry Trump products, punishing corporations and advertisers that underwrite the administration’s agenda, and disrupting business-as-usual at Trump companies — protesters are using the power of the purse to demonstrate their opposition and have planned a day of resistance against his brand on June 14th.

Such economic dissent may prove to be an especially apt path of resistance, especially for the millions of Americans who reside in blue states and have struggled with a sense of powerlessness following the election. After all, it’s not immediately obvious how to take effective political action in the usual American way when your legislators already agree with you. But what blue-state dwellers lack in political sway they make up for in economic clout, since blue states have, on average, greater household incomes and more purchasing power than their red-state compatriots. The impact of coordinated blue-state boycotts could be enormous. That’s why Grab Your Wallet, along with Color of Change, a racial-justice group, and numerous other organizations are encouraging individuals to see their purchasing power as political muscle.

“It was close at the polls, but it’s not close at the cash register,” Shannon Coulter, a founder of Grab Your Wallet, told me recently.

And yet, even as throngs of organizations and hundreds of thousands of individuals throw their energy into economic tactics intended to weaken the president, it’s still an open question whether this type of resistance — or, more specifically, its current implementation — can precipitate anything in the way of meaningful change.

“A Sprawling Landscape of Resistance”

At first glance, Grab Your Wallet is a modest website: a Google spreadsheet that lists about 50 companies to boycott.  Included are the department stores Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Lord & Taylor, as well as online retailers like Overstock.com, Zappos, and Amazon, all of which sell some type of Trump swag. (The precise number of companies listed continues to decline, as retailers dump the Trump brand.) The site gets an impressive two million unique visitors every month, and when I spoke with Coulter, she told me that 22 retailers had dropped Trump products since the start of the boycott. She believes that this is just the beginning.

“I don’t think we’ll see the full impact of the boycott until summer, because of how the retail cycle works,” she explained. The department store Nordstrom, for instance, the biggest company to date to drop the Ivanka Trump brand, sold through its existing inventory before indicating that it would not reorder. That announcement even attracted attention from the president, who tweeted: “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

Color of Change has long deployed strategies of economic resistance, specifically by going after advertisers who underwrite hate. Now that Trump is in the White House, Rashad Robinson, the group’s executive director, told me that they’re focusing on the role of corporate enablers “who’ve made this administration possible.” He described a strategy in which his organization carefully selects a corporate target and then rallies its million-plus members to participate in a campaign designed to tarnish the company’s brand — unless its executives make more ethical advertising choices. Color of Change played a role in the recent ouster of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News by helping to influence some of the more than 50 major advertisers who pulled their financial support from his top-rated program. After advertisers fled, Fox gave O’Reilly the boot.

Progressive groups are proving increasingly savvy when it comes to designing such consumer-driven tactics. The Center for Popular Democracy and the immigrant-rights group Make the Road New York recently co-launched a campaign called Corporate Backers of Hate, which targets Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, The Walt Disney Company, and a handful of other corporations that have provided various forms of support for Trump and his agenda. Wells Fargo, for instance, has lent millions of dollars to the president’s companies, is an investor in immigrant detention centers run by private, for-profit contractors, and has loaned money to developers for the Dakota Access Pipeline, the 1,172-mile oil pipe that would cross Standing Rock Sioux Tribe lands in North Dakota. (Trump signed a memo authorizing that pipeline within days of taking office.) The Corporate Backers of Hate website allows protesters to bypass customer service staff at these corporations and send messages directly to top executives and board members to express their disapproval.

This strategy of going after the funding underlying Trump’s network has won some early victories. Several groups have been trying to cut off the flow of advertising dollars to Breitbart, the xenophobic pseudo-news site formerly run by White House strategist Steve Bannon. Leading the charge in this work is a Twitter-based group, Sleeping Giants, with a relatively simple proposition: it asks followers to take screenshots of ads on Breitbart — preferably next to an offensive headline — and then tweet that screenshot to the company in the ad along with a polite message asking it to stop underwriting hate. This approach has been wildly successful; according to Sleeping Giants, thousands of advertisers have pulled out of Breitbart.

Nicholas Reville is a seasoned online organizer who has become a leading figure in the campaign to, as he says, make “hate unprofitable.” He believes that the Sleeping Giants model of digital resistance represents a new and important type of political action. “It’s very, very rare that you have an activism campaign where people are doing something other than signing a petition, showing up to a rally, [or] donating money,” he told me. Instead, he pointed out, an individual can now take a discrete action on his or her personal device and actually help win a victory when an advertiser pulls out of Breitbart.

Some activists are going beyond screenshots and tweets. Journalist Naomi Klein recently released a video highlighting the fact that Trump’s brand is one of his most important sources of revenue and suggesting that “jamming” the brand — by turning it from a money-maker into a money-loser — would be a powerful form of resistance. She mentions tactics like clogging phone lines at Trump companies or making, and then canceling, reservations at his hotels.

One activist who has been working on jamming those Trump phone lines, and who spoke with me on condition of anonymity, said that resisters like her had discovered that it was surprisingly easy to disrupt the president’s businesses. “The phone lines do not have the capacity to handle even medium-volume call traffic,” she said, and assured me that there was more phone jamming planned for the future. When I asked what she hoped to achieve through this tactic, she responded that the goal was to weaken President Trump financially, politically, and in every way imaginable.

“These strategies are complements to other kinds of organizing,” she went on. “None of these tactics alone are going to bring down the Trump administration... that’s not how it works. This is part of a sprawling landscape of resistance.”

Easy to Resist, Hard to Win

The multitude of groups, campaigns, and individuals going after Donald Trump, Trump businesses, and companies supporting him or his political agenda do indeed form a sprawling, often chaotic landscape of resistance. I receive a dozen different, mostly uncoordinated action-alert messages in my inbox daily. In the weeks immediately following the inauguration, I found all that frenetic energy strangely appealing. After a couple of months of diffuse efforts, however, I began to wonder whether such efforts would be better spent on fewer, more coordinated campaigns. While Trump oppositionists undoubtedly feel a thrill of satisfaction when Nordstrom drops Ivanka’s product line and legions of advertisers pull out of Breitbart, it’s unclear whether these are steps on the path to a revised political landscape, or whether they are just feel-good wins leading nowhere in particular.

This dilemma is perhaps best exemplified by the Boycott Trump app, which has been downloaded 350,000 times. The concept behind it is similar to the one that animates Grab Your Wallet. The app is essentially a list of companies to boycott, though it includes more than 250 of them, rather than the dozens on Grab Your Wallet, many because they sponsored Trump’s NBC show The Apprentice back in 2011. I asked Nathan Lerner, who heads an organization called the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, which is responsible for the app, what qualifies a company to be listed, and he said that any company connected to the president was worth listing. I then asked if his group was collaborating with other boycott efforts.

“We’ve been a little frustrated with partnering,” Lerner told me. “Right now we’re seeing a ton of enthusiasm around boycotting Trump, but it’s fragmented. Folks are popping up doing great work, but they’re doing it on their own.” That seemed like a remarkably on-target summary of the situation, and Lerner’s group seemed to be an example of those working “on their own.”

In search of answers, I called up Marshall Ganz, who would surely be in the hall of fame of community organizing if there were one. He worked with Cesar Chavez in the 1960s to organize California farmworkers and was an architect of Barack Obama’s organizing strategy for his presidential run in 2007. A professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School (and, full disclosure, once my professor), Ganz defines “strategy” as “how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” That applies nicely to the Trump boycott concept, in which activists are trying to turn their discrete consumer power into collective influence great enough to change where our country is headed.

When I mentioned to Ganz that so many different boycotts and related campaigns are happening without much coordination, he described the problem this way: “The mechanisms for starting my thing, my thing, my thing, they’re so easy in virtual space.” Bringing those initiatives together is the problem. As he pointed out, back in 2007 the San Francisco Bay Area alone had about 54 different pro-Obama groups registered online; the hard part was getting them to work together in a way that channeled their energy toward a shared goal. When it comes to fighting Donald Trump, Ganz suggested that it would be far more strategic for the many different boycott and pressure groups to pool their efforts. Were this to happen, he suggested, the anti-Trump movement could become more proactive, rather than reactive.

Not all experts agree with his assessment. L.A. Kaufman is the author of the recent bookDirect Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. “I think that the decentralized character of the resistance gives it resilience,” she told me in a phone interview. In her view, the fact that all this activity is totally grassroots and happening outside the Democratic Party is a sign of political renewal in this country. She has a point. Yet it’s hard to see how economic resistance, surely a suitable weapon against a businessman-in-chief, can be effective without a critical mass coalescing around an agreed-upon set of actions and goals.

I asked Shannon Coulter whether she’s coordinating with other campaigns, and she pointed out that Grab Your Wallet is now aligned with the organizers of the Women’s March, the vast post-inauguration protest that swept the country. Those same organizers were also the driving force behind the formation of roughly 5,500 groups of local activists who convened after the march to consider the next steps for the emerging anti-Trump movement. This alliance seemed like a promising sign.

Recalling what Ganz had said about uniting groups that supported Obama in 2007, I asked Coulter whether she would ever consider merging Grab Your Wallet into a larger organization. To this, she responded in the negative. “I say that,” she explained, “because Grab Your Wallet is one of the only women-led ones in the movement.”

Coulter isn’t the only one to offer such reasoning. Since the anti-Trump movement is a heterogeneous collection of groups representing women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ folks, and lots of straight white people, there’s concern that combining efforts could result in a resistance dominated by white men who might compromise the priorities of specific groups and their constituents. In order to be effective, says Rashad Robinson of Color of Change, campaigns must carry the “moral authority of an impacted constituency.” He described situations in which white-led groups had tried to mimic campaigns led by Color of Change — without realizing that they lacked the moral authority to do so effectively.

In 2014, Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies social movements, gave a TED talk titled “Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win,” in which she described the March on Washington in 1963. That historic event, where Martin Luther King delivered his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, drew 250,000 people. Tufekci underscored the significance of attracting such a crowd in 1963, when organizers used landline phones, flyers, and word of mouth, in a landscape lacking today’s easy digital tools. Fifty years ago it was nothing short of awe-inspiring to draw a quarter million people to the National Mall. “If you’re in power,” said Tufekci, “you realize that you have to take the capacity signaled by that march, not just the march, but the capacity signaled by that march, seriously.”

The anti-Trump movement has yet to accomplish anything so awe-inspiring. Nearly half a million people gathered in Washington for the Women’s March — a number that climbed to more than a million when all the protests around the country were added in — but it’s not at all clear that such numbers carry the same weight today as smaller crowds did in previous eras. Though protesters filled the streets in Washington one day after the inauguration, anti-Trump activity remains fragmented several months into his term.

And when it comes to waging economic resistance against this billionaire president, the pressing question is whether innumerable people across the country, like Dee from New York, who are changing their spending habits, tweeting at advertisers, contacting chief executives, and jamming phones at Trump businesses, will do so in a way that converts their discrete actions into real influence and power.

It’s still too early to tell.

Mattea Kramer, a TomDispatch regular, writes cultural commentary. Follow her on Twitter.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Mattea Kramer

Nickel and Dimed in 2016

Cashier

Retail jobs are frequently minimum-wage and highly monitored.

When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talks about income inequality, and when other candidates speak about the minimum wage and food stamps, what are they really talking about?

Whether they know it or not, it’s something like this.

My Working Life Then

A few years ago, I wrote about my experience enmeshed in the minimum-wage economy, chronicling the collapse of good people who could not earn enough money, often working 60-plus hours a week at multiple jobs, to feed their families. I saw that, in this country, people trying to make ends meet in such a fashion still had to resort to food benefit programs and charity. I saw an employee fired for stealing lunches from the break room refrigerator to feed himself. I watched as a co-worker secretly brought her two kids into the store and left them to wander alone for hours because she couldn’t afford childcare. (As it happens, 29% of low-wage employees are single parents.)

At that point, having worked at the State Department for 24 years, I had been booted out for being a whistleblower. I wasn’t sure what would happen to me next and so took a series of minimum wage jobs. Finding myself plunged into the low-wage economy was a sobering, even frightening, experience that made me realize just how ignorant I had been about the lives of the people who rang me up at stores or served me food in restaurants. Though millions of adults work for minimum wage, until I did it myself I knew nothing about what that involved, which meant I knew next to nothing about twenty-first-century America.

I was lucky. I didn’t become one of those millions of people trapped as the “working poor.” I made it out. But with all the election talk about the economy, I decided it was time to go back and take another look at where I had been, and where too many others still are.

My Working Life Now

I found things were pretty much the same in 2016 as they were in 2012, which meant — because there was no real improvement — that things were actually worse.

This time around, I worked for a month and a half at a national retail chain in New York City. While mine was hardly a scientific experiment, I'd be willing to bet an hour of my minimum-wage salary ($9 before taxes) that what follows is pretty typical of the New Economy.

Just getting hired wasn't easy for this 56-year-old guy. To become a sales clerk, peddling items that were generally well under $50 a pop, I needed two previous employment references and I had to pass a credit check. Unlike some low-wage jobs, a mandatory drug test wasn’t part of the process, but there was a criminal background check and I was told drug offenses would disqualify me. I was given an exam twice, by two different managers, designed to see how I'd respond to various customer situations. In other words, anyone without some education, good English, a decent work history, and a clean record wouldn't even qualify for minimum-wage money at this chain.

And believe me, I earned that money. Any shift under six hours involved only a 15-minute break (which cost the company just $2.25). Trust me, at my age, after hours standing, I needed that break and I wasn't even the oldest or least fit employee. After six hours, you did get a 45-minute break, but were only paid for 15 minutes of it.

Fast food

Minimum wage workers often have jobs that require constant customer interaction.

The hardest part of the job remained dealing with ... well, some of you. Customers felt entitled to raise their voices, use profanity, and commit Trumpian acts of rudeness toward my fellow employees and me. Most of our “valued guests” would never act that way in other public situations or with their own coworkers, no less friends. But inside that store, shoppers seemed to interpret “the customer is always right” to mean that they could do any damn thing they wished. It often felt as if we were penned animals who could be poked with a stick for sport, and without penalty. No matter what was said or done, store management tolerated no response from us other than a smile and a “Yes, sir” (or ma'am).

The store showed no more mercy in its treatment of workers than did the customers. My schedule, for instance, changed constantly. There was simply no way to plan things more than a week in advance. (Forget accepting a party invitation. I'm talking about childcare and medical appointments.) If you were on the closing shift, you stayed until the manager agreed that the store was clean enough for you to go home. You never quite knew when work was going to be over and no cell phone calls were allowed to alert babysitters of any delay.

And keep in mind that I was lucky. I was holding down only one job in one store. Most of my fellow workers were trying to juggle two or three jobs, each with constantly changing schedules, in order to stitch together something like a half-decent paycheck.

In New York City, that store was required to give us sick leave only after we'd worked there for a full year — and that was generous compared to practices in many other locales. Until then, you either went to work sick or stayed home unpaid. Unlike New York, most states do not require such a store to offer any sick leave, ever, to employees who work less than 40 hours a week. Think about that the next time your waitress coughs.

Minimum Wages and Minimum Hours

Much is said these days about raising the minimum wage (and it should be raised), and indeed, on January 1, 2016, 13 states did raise theirs. But what sounds like good news is unlikely to have much effect on the working poor.

In New York, for instance, the minimum went from $8.75 an hour to the $9.00 I was making. New York is relatively generous. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and 21 states require only that federal standard. Presumably to prove some grim point or other, Georgia and Wyoming officially mandate an even lower minimum wage and then unofficially require the payment of $7.25 to avoid Department of Labor penalties. Some Southern states set no basement figure, presumably for similar reasons.

Don’t forget: any minimum wage figure mentioned is before taxes. Brackets vary, but let's knock an even 10% off that hourly wage just as a reasonable guess about what is taken out of a minimum-wage worker's salary. And there are expenses to consider, too. My round-trip bus fare every day, for instance, was $5.50. That meant I worked most of my first hour for bus fare and taxes. Keep in mind that some workers have to pay for childcare as well, which means that it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which someone could actually come close to losing money by going to work for short shifts at minimum wage.

Bus

Transportation costs can use up a significant amount of a minimum wage worker's earnings.

In addition to the fundamental problem of simply not paying people enough, there’s the additional problem of not giving them enough hours to work. The two unfortunately go together, which means that raising the minimum rate is only part of any solution to improving life in the low-wage world.

At the store where I worked for minimum wage a few years ago, for instance, hours were capped at 39 a week. The company did that as a way to avoid providing the benefits that would kick in once one became a “full time” employee. Things have changed since 2012 — and not for the better.

Four years later, the hours of most minimum-wage workers are capped at 29. That's the threshold after which most companies with 50 or more employees are required to pay into the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) fund on behalf of their workers. Of course, some minimum wage workers get fewer than 29 hours for reasons specific to the businesses they work for.

It's Math Time

While a lot of numbers follow, remember that they all add up to a picture of how people around us are living every day.

In New York, under the old minimum wage system, $8.75 multiplied by 39 hours equaled $341.25 a week before taxes. Under the new minimum wage, $9.00 times 29 hours equals $261 a week. At a cap of 29 hours, the minimum wage would have to be raised to $11.77 just to get many workers back to the same level of take-home pay that I got in 2012, given the drop in hours due to the Affordable Care Act. Health insurance is important, but so is food.

In other words, a rise in the minimum wage is only half the battle; employees need enough hours of work to make a living.

About food: if a minimum wage worker in New York manages to work two jobs (to reach 40 hours a week) without missing any days due to illness, his or her yearly salary would be $18,720. In other words, it would fall well below the Federal Poverty Line of $21,775. That's food stamp territory. To get above the poverty line with a 40-hour week, the minimum wage would need to go above $10. At 29 hours a week, it would need to make it to $15 an hour. Right now, the highest minimum wage at a state level is in the District of Columbia at $11.50. As of now, no state is slated to go higher than that before 2018. (Some cities do set their own higher minimum wages.)

So add it up: The idea of raising the minimum wage (“the fight for $15”) is great, but even with that $15 in such hours-restrictive circumstances, you can't make a loaf of bread out of a small handful of crumbs. In short, no matter how you do the math, it’s nearly impossible to feed yourself, never mind a family, on the minimum wage. It's like being trapped on an M.C. Escher staircase.

The federal minimum wage hit its high point in 1968 at $8.54 in today's dollars and while this country has been a paradise in the ensuing decades for what we now call the “One Percent,” it’s been downhill for low-wage workers ever since. In fact, since it was last raised in 2009 at the federal level to $7.25 per hour, the minimum has lost about 8.1% of its purchasing power to inflation. In other words, minimum-wage workers actually make less now than they did in 1968, when most of them were probably kids earning pocket money and not adults feeding their own children.

In adjusted dollars, the minimum wage peaked when the Beatles were still together and the Vietnam War raged.

Who Pays?

Many of the arguments against raising the minimum wage focus on the possibility that doing so would put small businesses in the red. This is disingenuous indeed, since 20 mega-companies dominate the minimum-wage world. Walmart alone employs 1.4 million minimum-wage workers; Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) is in second place; and McDonald's takes third. Overall, 60% of minimum-wage workers are employed by businesses not officially considered “small” by government standards, and of course carve-outs for really small businesses are possible, as was done with Obamacare.

Keep in mind that not raising wages costs you money.

Those minimum wage workers who can't make enough and need to go on food assistance? Well, Walmart isn't paying for those food stamps (now called SNAP), you are. The annual bill that states and the federal government foot for working families making poverty-level wages is $153 billion. A single Walmart Supercenter costs taxpayers between $904,542 and $1.75 million per year in public assistance money, and Walmart employees account for 18% of all food stamps issued. In other words, those everyday low prices at the chain are, in part, subsidized by your tax money.

If the minimum wage goes up, will spending on food benefits programs go down? Almost certainly. But won't stores raise prices to compensate for the extra money they will be shelling out for wages? Possibly. But don't worry — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would mean a Big Mac would cost all of 17 cents more.

Time Theft

My retail job ended a little earlier than I had planned, because I committed time theft.

You probably don’t even know what time theft is. It may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, but minimum-wage employers take time theft seriously. The basic idea is simple enough: if they’re paying you, you’d better be working. While the concept is not invalid per se, the way it’s used by the mega-companies reveals much about how the lowest wage workers are seen by their employers in 2016.

The problem at my chain store was that its in-store cafe was a lot closer to my work area than the time clock where I had to punch out whenever I was going on a scheduled break. One day, when break time on my shift came around, I only had 15 minutes. So I decided to walk over to that cafe, order a cup of coffee, and then head for the place where I could punch out and sit down (on a different floor at the other end of the store).

We’re talking an extra minute or two, no more, but in such operations every minute is tabulated and accounted for. As it happened, a manager saw me and stepped in to tell the cafe clerk to cancel my order. Then, in front of whoever happened to be around, she accused me of committing time theft — that is, of ordering on the clock. We’re talking about the time it takes to say, “Grande, milk, no sugar, please.” But no matter, and getting chastised on company time was considered part of the job, so the five minutes we stood there counted as paid work.

At $9 an hour, my per-minute pay rate was 15 cents, which meant that I had time-stolen perhaps 30 cents. I was, that is, being nickel and dimed to death.

Economics Is About People

It seems wrong in a society as wealthy as ours that a person working full-time can't get above the poverty line. It seems no less wrong that someone who is willing to work for the lowest wage legally payable must also give up so much of his or her self-respect and dignity as a kind of tariff. Holding a job should not be a test of how to manage life as one of the working poor.

I didn't actually get fired for my time theft. Instead, I quit on the spot. Whatever the price is for my sense of self-worth, it isn’t 30 cents. Unlike most of this country’s working poor, I could afford to make such a decision. My life didn't depend on it. When the manager told a handful of my coworkers watching the scene to get back to work, they did. They couldn't afford not to.


Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the “reconstruction” of Iraq in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at We Meant Well. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. His next work will be a novel, Hooper's War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Peter Van Buren

Top photo by Fotolia/Kadmy

Middle photo by Fotolia/connel_design

Bottom photo by Fotolia/Dmitry Naumov