Monday, September 12, 2011

Highest Common Denominator

Let’s drink to the hard-working people.
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.

I am writing this on my birthday.

Ordinarily, posts to this blog are not personal. But given my background, and that my birthday falls shortly after Labor Day, I decided to break my own rule.

Today, I lift my glass to the worker.

I come by my convictions honestly. My great grandfather helped to bring the United Mine Workers to his small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, at a time when union organizing could get a man killed. Until she retired, my mother was a teacher, and very involved in her National Education Association local. So I grew up believing, as Margaret Mead* noted in the quote that has made its way onto way too many t-shirts and posters, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I grew up believing in the value of work, and the value of workers.

So it is with great dismay that I observe the growing sense of anger and resentment toward workers -- union and government workers, to be sure, but also workers in general.

I understand some of these emotions:  those who are unemployed resent those who seem to have good jobs – jobs with security and benefits. Fear and desperation breed anger. I get that.

But I am increasingly upset with what seems to be a new mindset:  that shareholders and Wall Street and bankers matter more than workers. When did working women and men become the enemy?

I am worried. I am worried that current economic challenges will increase the divisions already present in our society – especially here in the District of Columbia – and lead to fractures in the civil infrastructure that undergirds our society.

But we can change this. We can be that “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.”

Instead of watching our economy and our society spiral downward, we have the chance to stop, think, and reverse course.

Instead of resenting unions and other workers’ organizations for negotiating fair wages and benefits, let’s resolve to bring fair wages and benefits to *all* workers. Let’s bring the wages and benefits of all American workers *up* -- to the highest common denominator.

If we agree that work and workers should be valued, then we all need to make some changes. Instead of seeking the lowest price, perhaps our quest should be for the best value.

We pay dearly for our pursuit of the lowest price. We pay in lower wages for workers, in reduced health and safety protections, in weaker environmental regulations, in job losses to other countries where labor costs are lower. When we demand low prices instead of good values, we set up a perfectly vicious circle that results in further depression of wages.

And at the same time, corporate executives demand higher and higher profitability to satisfy Wall Street and keep shareholders happy.

When consumers demand low prices, corporations have to keep the costs of goods down.  When at the same time, corporate shareholders demand high rates of return on their investments, corporations have to keep their profits high. The result is a squeeze on labor costs – and on flesh-and-blood workers – that is unsustainable. Something has to give.

Turn the equation upside down for a minute. What if we agreed that the best approach is to help everyone find a job on a career ladder that leads to good, family-sustaining wages? The result would be workers with more income, who would be better able to provide for their families, to meet their own needs, and to contribute to the economies in their neighborhoods, their cities, their states, and the country. We would then create a virtuous circle, spiraling upward, and supporting a thriving, growing economy for all.

In the District of Columbia, the DC Jobs Council works for that virtuous circle. We invite you to join us in that work. If we all pull together, we can ensure every District resident has the chance to prepare for, find, and keep a good job, one that offers a solid step on a career ladder to family-sustaining wages.

Kind of a nice wish for a birthday ...


*In an interesting side note, Margaret Mead and I grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town - albeit a few years apart.

No comments:

Post a Comment