Imagine a world where — instead of unemployment, under-employment, and poverty; instead of wages so low that people can’t afford to live where they work; and instead of 60-hour work weeks — everybody who wanted to work had a decent job, a living wage, prosperity, a 30-40 work week, and extra leisure time.
Sounds pretty good, right? How do we make it happen here?
Hint: It won’t be through tax breaks, or “business friendly” laws.
Another hint: It will be through an approach that puts human needs over the needs of business.
We do it by guaranteeing through law and by action the right of all residents to a job that pays a living wage.
First, a short analysis:
Our current economic system maintains a permanent level of unemployment and poverty. This is how a labor “market” works, simple supply and demand. Those who reap the benefits produced by a worker — the business owner — have a great incentive to keep labor costs down. But that’s not the only incentive. A more encompassing incentive is
built into a system based on having a market in human labor.
When workers go to work, they produce or perform work for a certain amount of money. They don’t call it a day and go home once what they’ve been producing brings in enough to pay for their needs.
Workers produce a profit, that profit is the excess of the work they perform. Owners keep that excess and decide what to do with it. When there is a shortage of labor, the market demands that workers get paid more. When there is an excess of labor, wages go down and there is more unemployment.
Right now in this country, including Charlottesville, there is an excess of workers. This has happened for many reasons, but the bottom line is we have unemployment, under-employment, and people working 2 or 3 jobs. Now- one way to change this is through putting workers in direct control of the excess of their labor. This can be done by way
of co-ops, being-your-own-boss, and democratizing the workplace.
However, we can’t do this legally (yet), nor would we want the state to be in charge rather than people. We can, however, change the nature of the Charlottesville labor market by guaranteeing a job at a decent wage for all city residents.
This would lead to an overall increase in wages for all workers in Charlottesville, and would also reduce the need for people to work 2nd and 3rd jobs, thus opening up more in-town positions for employment. The benefits of doing so could be immense: more home ownership, more family time, more leisure time, better health, less violence, more
educational opportunities, increased city revenue, and the elimination of the need for poor folks to join the military, then kill and die in illegal wars.
But won’t employers just raise prices for customers?
One might think so, but here’s a quick analysis that suggests they won’t:
Because currently inflation-adjusted wages haven’t risen and productivity has remained the same (or even increased), the excess produced by workers has gotten bigger and business owners are getting more profit. When this is the case, one might think that the incentive to keep prices low will remain: after all, owners are still making more profit. It’s also important to consider that, in order for owners to do any business, workers need to earn enough to purchase goods and services — which, in any event, have been produced by the excess of their labor! The ugly truth of the old system is that owners have found a way both to make sure that wages stay low, and to enable us to be able to buy goods-
The magic word is “credit.” Credit is basically our labor stolen from us, and then lent back to us to buy the stuff we produced — with interest!
In the current situation, however, credit is harder and harder for poor folks to get. It is also the case that in the current situation there’s an incentive for owners to keep prices down. I
believe that if keeping prices down were the stated goal of city residents, then most businesses would continue to respect that, particularly those that might participate in a city-sponsored jobs program.
Despite all of the restrictions placed on the city by the state, and despite the codified law of market-based labor as the system in which Charlottesville must participate, I firmly believe that one of the most ambitious and necessary tools to move toward social transformation, democratization of the workplace, and the delivery of a modicum of human dignity and respect for those of us who do the real work and the real suffering in Charlottesville is to pass an ordinance that guarantees a job to any resident of Charlottesville, a job that pays a living wage — even for “tipped” wage employees.
Here’s how I think this might get started.
-We take an assessment of unemployment in Charlottesville, as well as under-employment. As we do this, we count heads, and take names.
-We simultaneously assess how many workplaces in Charlottesville pay a living wage ($11.44/hr or $4.40/hr for waitstaff).
-We open a city-sponsored “Jobs Center”.
-We work with the Virginia Employment Commission to ensure that the services that they offer can be obtained in Charlottesville, as there is currently no VEC office in town. That aspect will help with job searches and provide services for unemployment claims.
-As part of the Center’s mission, we invite all community business that pay at least a living wage to hire through the Center.
-The City of Charlottesville pays employees old and new a living wage for the many things that we need to accomplish. This includes greening the city, repairing infrastructure, and opening new parklands and gardens. The city begins a Public Works program so that, if workers coming to the Jobs Center can’t find work through a private employer, then they go to work directly for the city.
-As more people gain a living wage, more already-employed workers will begin to demand higher wages. Some will quit their jobs outright in favor of using the Jobs Center. Through
this process, we will see an increase in wages across the board, especially if we are up front with employers about the City’s intention to guarantee employment at a livable wage. As wages increase, fewer workers will need to work 2nd and 3rd jobs, freeing up employment in the private sector.
-The city begins a program to give workers direct collective and democratic control over the work that they do. This would eventually take some of the burden off of the city as it transitions increasing numbers of workers into co-operative business of their own.
-As part of the Jobs Center mission, we train people and provide educational opportunities, including job skills and workforce development, perhaps through CATECH and PVCC.
-Many residents involved in social services and public housing could be directly employed by those agencies, especially since they often have in-depth knowledge of the communities that they serve and where they work.
-Restaurant workers are included in this process. $2.13 an hour is dehumanizing. We must demand at least $4.40/hour for tipped-wage employees.
-We keep accurate data on unemployment, under-employment, and wages throughout the process in order to maintain a program that works.
The long and short of it is that we must guarantee employment for our residents, documented or not, and we must take action to make this happen — through the private sector, through facilitating the creation of worker’s co-operatives, and by directly putting people to work improving our community.
At the turn of the last century, workers all over the United States began a movement for a 40-hour work week and an 8-hour work day. That concept was based on the notion that those hours should provide enough wages for a person or a family to live on. People were killed in the streets fighting for that idea. The “40 hour” part of the idea won the day, but the part that linked those 40 hours to fair pay has been lost. Employers do not hire for more than 40 hours per week, and, to avoid paying benefits, some refuse to schedule workers for more than 20 hours per week. Thus, many people go to work in 2nd and 3rd jobs. That is not 40 hours for fair pay, and it adds to unemployment. Unemployment adds to the welfare rolls, and then people are kicked off. This all happens because the system under which we base our society is built to keep things that way.
I believe that we must fundamentally change how our society works, and I fully believe that Charlottesville is a place where we can begin to make these changes. On City Council I will work hard to bring guaranteed employment to all residents of Charlottesville. I will base all of my decisions on what is for the benefit of the working class and oppressed people in our town. I further offer any and all help in labor activism of all sorts to demand workers rights, whether it is through local government, in the workplace, or on the streets!