To the Corporate Media, Workers May as Well Not Exist

Ann Larson

Working-class people are systematically left out of mainstream media coverage. So the stories we get are incomplete, skewed, or even complete distortions of reality.

When the people who report the news come from rarefied places, we are going to get incomplete stories. (John Tlumacki / the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Interview by
Anne Rumberger

Economic insecurity is rarely reported on by those who have experienced it. Mainstream journalism is increasingly dominated by those from well-off backgrounds, excluding the majority of Americans.

Writer and activist Ann Larson worked in a grocery store during the pandemic and, in the new anthology Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country, observes what the mainstream media omits when reporting on working-class politics, while also offering reflections on what it will take to build class solidarity. Larson argues that uniting people around common experiences like debt and poor working conditions is key to building a mass working-class movement.

It might also help if everyone had worked in a grocery store.

Anne Rumberger

What is missing when working-class perspectives are left out of media coverage of current events?

Ann Larson

Missing from media coverage these days is the point of view of people in the majority. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and almost half of us could not afford a $400 emergency.

Bias is the reason our media rarely covers issues from a working-class perspective. As my colleagues from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project point out all the time, a growing number of journalists come from affluent backgrounds. One study showed that nearly half of journalists employed at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times attended elite universities. When the people who report the news come from such rarefied places, we are going to get stories that are incomplete, skewed, or false.

Another way to put it is that we usually get the perspective of people who have always had enough to eat.

Anne Rumberger

How did working as a cashier at a supermarket during the pandemic affect your ideas about how crime was covered in mainstream media?

Ann Larson

Shoplifting was a daily, even hourly, occurrence at the supermarket where I worked in 2020 and 2021. But the vast majority of thieves stole so they could eat. Sometimes, shoplifters took food off the shelf or from the hot bar and put it right into their mouths. They knew they would be caught but were too hungry to care.

Some of my coworkers could not have afforded food themselves without SNAP benefits (which were cut earlier this year). One elderly colleague, a bagger, limited herself to the kids’ menu in the deli to save money on lunch. When a 2022 study showed that up to 75 percent of grocery workers are food insecure, I was not surprised. We have a food distribution system where the people who sell groceries are paid too little to afford to eat.

It was surreal to work in a place where access to food was such a huge issue while the media often portrayed shoplifting as a crime against big retailers. Reports often suggested that more police were needed to address a crisis of shoplifting. I never understood that argument. My store had full-time security guards, and the cops showed up all the time to make arrests. But hungry people kept coming back because a grocery store is full of food, and they had few other places to get it.

Some accounts of widespread theft suggested that the phenomenon was evidence of the collapse of the social order. I’m actually fine with that argument, as long as we can admit that the real problem is people starving in the richest country in the history of the world.

Anne Rumberger

Could the United States address economic inequality partly through a redistribution of labor, and what does that look like?

Ann Larson

In my article, “My Pandemic Year Behind the Checkout Counter,” which is part of the Going for Broke anthology, I write about an incident that occurred when a man took a shit on the floor of the supermarket where I worked. Shoppers had to buy something to get the code to the restroom, but those who didn’t have money often waited outside the door so they could grab it when someone exited. That day, when no one exited the restroom in time, the man dropped his pants.

The incident caused a split among staffers. Some colleagues blamed the man for what he had done, while a few argued that he was a victim of circumstances outside of his control. When I defended the man, a coworker reprimanded me: “Jane had to clean it up.” The comment reminded me that the man had a right to a bathroom just as Jane should not have had to clean up shit in a job that was already hard and thankless enough.

That incident got me thinking about the bad politics that come from never feeling at risk of having to do what Jane did that day. One of the conclusions that I make in the article is that perhaps a key to social change is a redistribution of labor so that more of the people who don’t do that work now are required to pull a few shifts at the supermarket. I wrote the article almost as a fantasy: I really want to see corporate lobbyists, CEOs, and billionaires with a broom cleaning up the messes that arise from an economic system that benefits them.

On the other hand, I’m a fan of public goods and of the idea that we could reorganize our economy so that no one has to go without the basics. If people who have never cleaned up shit don’t want to be conscripted into that labor, then maybe they should start doing more to assure that wages go up and that wealth is redistributed so that the people who perform such tasks on their behalf can afford to eat, go to the doctor, and take care of their families.

Anne Rumberger

What did working in a grocery store and being tasked with catching shoplifters and surveilling homeless people make you realize about the obstacles to building class solidarity?

Ann Larson

The news isn’t good. As a cofounder of the Debt Collective and as someone who has been involved in left politics for years, nothing has taught me more about the state of class solidarity than working in a supermarket during the pandemic. Low-wage workers (even those not hired as security guards) were encouraged to help catch thieves, a job that pitted us against people with whom we had many shared interests.

Pandemic-era policies were also a mixed bag. Some of my supermarket colleagues resented family and friends who were employed as restaurant servers or in other shuttered businesses who got to stay home and collect unemployment. Of course, it was necessary and good to offer unemployment benefits to laid off workers. At the same time, the way those policies protected some while requiring others to punch a clock seemed random and unfair. This was exacerbated by the fact that millions lost their health insurance, but no one seemed to be pushing very hard for universal policies like Medicare for All that might have evened the score.

Finally, the rise of grocery prices starting in 2021 was traumatic. It was painful to listen to cashiers and baggers blame inflation on stimulus checks instead of on the role of corporations in setting prices. To me, this was evidence that the Left was not offering a persuasive alternative explanation for the phenomenon. Given that reality, I didn’t blame people for making sense of their problems in the best way they could.

Anne Rumberger

What types of common experiences can we organize working people around? How has organizing for debt cancelation changed your perspective on building a base of working-class people to effect change?

Ann Larson

The reason people are in debt for education and health care is the same reason they can’t afford their grocery bill or live in food deserts: we have forced people to access virtually everything on the private market.

College used to be free. It was considered a universal right. Starting in the 1970s, as public funding for education dried up, colleges started charging tuition to the point where we can hardly remember that it used to be different. Today, if you want to see the doctor, or if you want a roof over your head, you usually have to fight and scrape to get those things from a corporation that does business only if it can make a profit.

Shifts in how we get food follow a similar trajectory. In the 1930s, prices at the grocery store were regulated by the federal government. The idea that people could only feed themselves if someone else was making money would have been the height of scandal to shoppers during the New Deal era. Rebuilding solidarity would mean learning from that history.

Working in a supermarket confirmed what I learned as an organizer; if the problem is inequality, the solution is high-wage jobs and universal public goods. That’s what we should be fighting for.

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Ann Larson is a contributor to the anthology Going for Broke: Living on the Edge in the World’s Richest Country, edited by Alissa Quart and David Wallis, published by Haymarket Books in collaboration with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Anne Rumberger is an activist with NYC for Abortion Rights and Chicago for Abortion Rights. Her writing on reproductive politics has also appeared in Salvage.

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