Catching Fire, Catwoman, Elysium, and Unionizing Wallmart

catching-fire-capitol-couture Laura Atkins, Michele and I saw Hunger Games: Catching Fire over the weekend. It was very good, just as the reviewers said it would be. I didn’t expect much from the first Hunger Games movie and was shocked when it turned out to be so engrossing. With better reviews, I expected the second movie to be good – and it was – but it didn’t carry the surprise of the first movie. It was good but I wasn’t knocked out. Part of the problem is that I had seen Gravity in between the two Hunger Games movies and part of the problem is that it is hard to have a great second movie of a trilogy, just look at The Empire Strikes Back (OK, that was probably overkill and The Dark Knight was probably the best of Nolan’s trilogy).

However, Jennifer Lawrence is great, even if it is in a sort of Ree – from Winter’s Bone – way and carries the movie. In both her scene with President Snow, and when she finds out that she will have to go back into the area, she projects fear and utter hopelessness better than anybody I can remember. Now, after watching her on The Daily Show, I am looking forward to see her do a comedy.

Another part of my problem with Catching Fire is that the basic premise of the reaping and the Hunger Games really doesn’t make sense as anything but, as David Denby says, a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to cast the movie in the same mold as 1984 and Brave New World. Those books were meant as cautionary tales on where the world was headed. I keep wanting to see this movie as a comment on the country’s direction towards decreasing equality and I kept getting hung-up on Why did President Snow do that, it will just piss people off and make them even more likely to revolt. But maybe that is just the movie being unperceptive, Walmart doesn’t seem to understand that what it is doing is just pissing people off and making them more likely to strike.

Even so, while I am willing to admit the inequality is not what Catching Fire the movie is about, the inequality in Panem does set the tone for the movie. The movie takes the point of view that the future will be bringing less, not more, equality. So does  The Dark Knight Rises. It is all about the disparity between the rich and poor in Gotham City. It is pretty explicit when  Commissioner Gordon references A Tale of Two Cities in Bruce Wayne’s eulogy with It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known…Selina Kyle is even more explicit when she says There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us. 

And Elysium drops any nuance. Earth is a giant slum and the 1% live in orbit (with universal, instant, healthcare, seemingly, the same healthcare that the rich have in Panem). All three movies paint a bleak future. I think that they are really projecting the bleak present onto the future because most people do not realize the reality of the present. inequality-page25_actualdistribwithlegend-1Back in the late 50’s when the country was much more equitable than now, my first real job was a summer job as a Union Laborer working on – what we then called – Bayshore Freeway. It was easy to become a laborer and get into the Laborer’s Union. It was considered an undesirable job because it was a hard and dirty job but it was a Union job and a big percentage of my fellow workers were supporting themselves and a family because it paid pretty well. Even so, it was looked down upon by my friends who had more prestigious summer jobs inside. I always thought that was a little strange because I was making more money than they were.

After the Army and after I graduated from college, I went back to work in the construction business. Because the Laborers were making high, Union, wages, everybody up the foodchain was making, correspondingly, high wages. Occasionally I would talk to friends who worked for banks and had much more impressive jobs than I did. I was a basically a field guy and spent much of my time with guys who worked with their tools, in the dirt, while my banker friends worked in an office and  wore nice suits. I was always surprised at how little they were paid, I was always surprised that they got their suits at JCPenney.

I remember dating an executive who worked for I. Magnin – she was a big deal and had been hired away from Neiman Marcus – and I was shocked that she couldn’t afford a car. A couple of times, I joked that they should start a Union and they laughed, telling me that they were above that, Unions were for the masses, they were Bankers or Management.

Now the Unions are being driven out of the private sector workplace. Wherever possible, Union workers are being replaced by nonunion people and there are lots of ways to do it. When Standard Oil moved their data processing from San Francisco to the suburbs in the San Ramon Valley, I was working for Shapell in the area. I wondered, out loud to everybody I knew, why they would do that. A leasing agent for Bishop Ranch explained it to me, In San Francisco, the data processing is done by, largely, minority workers who are Unionized. In San Ramon, the work is done by wives of low level executives. They are all Republicans and don’t want to be in Unions so Standard Oil can pay them less. According to the New Yorker, In 2005, Alaska Airlines fired nearly five hundred union baggage handlers in Seattle and replaced them with contractors. The old workers earned about thirteen dollars an hour; the new ones made around nine.

Unions are being driven out of the construction industry partially because Mexicans are getting their jobs. Unions are being driven out of the car manufacturing industry as manufacturers move south to non-Union states or overseas. Unions are being driven out of everything.

Because of that, everybody, except the very few, is making less money.

For awhile that was hidden because, as manufacturing went non-Union, or moved to China, stuff got cheaper. So a guy wanting a Skillsaw paid less for it than he would have twenty years ago. But now, so many people are paid so little that, as the New York Times reported, Walmart and Target both trimmed their yearly forecasts recently, citing economic factors like slow wage growth. That is another way of saying , workers aren’t getting paid enough to even buy the cheap stuff they sell at Walmart and Target. Too many Americans now work low-paying jobs like working at Walmart. The workers can no longer afford to buy enough to stimulate the economy. People can not live on the $7.75 an hour minimum wage, they can not support a family on the $8.00 an hour Walmart pays.


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