Barbara Ehrenreich, a self-styled "sarcastic feminist political essayist," brought her expose of the underside of capitalism to the University at Buffalo on Wednesday evening.
The writer who went underground to work for minimum wage and research "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" spoke to about 2,000 people in Alumni Arena on the UB North Campus in Amherst. Most of the audience consisted of students who seemed genuinely troubled by her message.
Peppered with barbs at Republicans, Ehrenreich's talk also was filled with bitter quips. But her face had no smile, and the laughter, while frequent, was less than rollicking.
"I've never worked so hard in my life," she said of her experiences as a Wal-Mart "associate," or sales clerk. "It was a humbling experience. Those jobs are also mentally challenging. You memorize the locations of hundreds of items, which then are rotated every few days. I'll never call it 'unskilled' work again."
Drawing on experiences in other jobs, Ehrenreich said she worked alongside women who skipped lunch because they didn't have any money . . . who wore adult diapers because they weren't allowed to take breaks . . . who were homeless but didn't pity themselves, because they had a car to sleep in.
"Jobs in America are starting to resemble Third World sweatshops," she said.
Ehrenreich said the genesis of her crusade for the poor goes back to the Republican-inspired welfare reform signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. By forcing welfare mothers to go to work, she said, the nation doomed many of them to jobs of degradation with no hope of advancement.
During her tirade against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, Ehrenreich blamed many of the woes of the poor on the Christian political right. She defied her listeners to name "any major religion or ethical system that requires the poor to give alms to the rich."
Acknowledging that she is an atheist, Ehrenreich snapped: "I am tired of seeing greed and cruelty and indifference to human suffering masked as Christian values. If there are any Christians here, take your religion back."
Her parents, she said, were "blue-collar atheists who brought me up in an ethical tradition that said: 'You don't do the right thing because you're going to be rewarded in the afterlife for it. You do it because it's the only honorable and self-respecting way to live.' "
Blue-collar workers should be honored as the nation's principal philanthropists, she said, because everyone else owes a debt to them.
"Get involved in the movement for a living wage," she urged. "If you're a student here, investigate the wages and working conditions of the workers on the campus. And I mean all the people who make your education possible -- the clerical workers, the housekeepers, the food service workers, the maintenance people, librarians."
Failing that, she added, "the least you can do -- don't be a snob. Say hello and get to know these people. Respect their work."