Sustainability and Wages

(#329) – Over the holidays, opportunity to visit with others outside the regular flow of people provided the focus for this column on sustainability where economic and environmental justice are greatly advanced from current conditions. There was also added time to read some of the excellent reporting by local print media that is increasingly focused on sustainability issues.

More often than not, a general inquiry into how everyone was doing resulted in news of mortgage foreclosures and bankruptcy filings by family members, friends and neighbors. Unemployment, under-employment, low wages, high taxes, increased energy and transportation costs, were causing economic collapse among families who never thought they would suffer this experience. When this becomes the principal subject on several occasions, the conclusion is that our local economy is highly unsustainable and may be moving into more negative territory.

It’s time to talk about setting a minimum wage goal.  Not the $8/hour recently established by law in NYS.  Doubling that increase to $16/hour will not provide adequate earnings to meet living costs in Sullivan County. Since it is perfectly clear that even $16 is not going to happen, we need to find what help is available to get to $12/hour or more.

The first source of help is existing enterprise, locally and non-locally owned.  There are many examples of local employers who enjoy very prosperous lives while paying employees less than equitable share of their productivity. A recent study indicates that one of our popular fast food franchises pursues a low wage strategy that results in $1,200,000,000 a year in publicly funded services to provide basic necessities to its employees.  With a profit benefit via public subsidy of $100,000/y every ten fast food stores receives $1,000,000 from local taxes.  Those who eat this food consume unhealthy food and enrich owners who can afford to do much better by their employees.  Wal-Mart is another deeply documented example of structuring wage policy so that employees must depend upon public subsidy.  There are many other enterprises that follow similar practices.

It’s important to establish this as fact, as business as usual, as preferred policy.

The result should be an understanding that this is not fair, not sustainable, and is undemocratic by any comparison with our civil traditions. This deliberate unfairness actually keeps pressure on maintaining low wages as productivity gains and profits rise.  Almost all of the claims that raising wages would create more unemployment and hurt the economy are proven false by recent studies that have been popularized in local media. A faster growing economy and many new jobs would be created

The great majority of unlivable, unjust wages are located in the food and service industries in our area.  Most large-scale development projects currently under design for Sullivan County are in this category.  It can be hoped that the demand for  new employees will drive up the baseline wages of people in general.  But, it could turn out to put a lock on the continuing increasing gap between owner and employee, and necessities of life and wages.

This doesn’t have to be an adversarial issue.  A very strong commitment by our public officials and their agents can make a bargain that is a bargain for all.

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