Low-Wage Trade

An Interview With Barbara Ehrenreich

Her most directed jab at the upper middle class came in an essay for Harper's, "Maid to Order," which called for an end to the "servant economy" and passionately condemned anyone employing domestic cleaning help—a denunciation that allegedly had listservs like Fem-Econ abuzz with outrage, and critics like Judith Shulevitz, then at Slate, up in arms. "Greater numbers of women are getting to do what they want to do, and Ehrenreich wants them to give it up and tend to their homes. Luckily, there's not a chance in hell they'll listen to her," she wrote in a column entitled "Barbara Ehrenreich, Enemy of Labor."

But Ehrenreich has plenty of supporters, from The New York Times Book Review, which anointed her "our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism," to the workers she writes about, like Becky, who makes 50 bucks a day waiting tables at the St. Clair. "Who works this job and has the time or the energy to write about it for the other side?" Becky says.

Barbara Ehrenreich: ‘‘The low-wage workplace is a dictatorship, and that was a rude shock.’’
photo: Justin Lane
Barbara Ehrenreich: ‘‘The low-wage workplace is a dictatorship, and that was a rude shock.’’

Energy is something Ehrenreich seems to have in excess, maintained by a career freelancer's zeal to be constantly pushing toward the next project (in this case, a book debunking welfare reform with Francis Fox Piven) and, of course, the fuel of outrage. "I'm permanently pissed off about a zillion things, but the trick is to be sustained by a slow-burning, purifying rage without letting it eat you up," she says, with a thank-you nod to the waitress who arrives to refill her iced tea. "Go read the Old Testament! Those prophets aren't sitting around saying 'have a nice day.' There are role models where anger is a source for social change." It will be interesting to see just what sort of specific social change Ehrenreich eventually recommends when, as she writes, "the strikes and disruption" come, when millions of American low-wage workers "tire of getting so little in return." Haven't they already?

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