Balkinization  

Sunday, September 01, 2013

King's Economic Legacy

Frank Pasquale

Joey Fishkin highlights a very important part of Martin Luther King's march on Washington:
Threaded through the demands of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were calls for economic justice. The marchers demanded a nationwide minimum wage of “at least” $2.00 (it was then $1.25, so a 60% raise), in order to “give all Americans a decent standard of living.” They demanded a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers -- Negro and white -- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”
The legacy lives on. As David Dayen observes, "fast food and retail worker" strikes reflect the original marchers' demands. An entity like "McDonald’s is so vast and lucrative that it could easily survive a major wage increase." Such increases are desperately needed. As worker Willietta Dukes puts it:
I make $7.85 at Burger King as a guest ambassador and team leader, where I train new employees on restaurant regulations and perform the manager's duties in their absence. . . . I've worked in fast-food for 15 years, and I can't even afford my own rent payments. . . .My hours, like many of my coworkers, were cut this year, and I now work only 25 to 28 hours each week. I can't afford to pay my bills working part time and making $7.85, and last month, I lost my house.
Dukes is one of the millions of faces behind aggregate statistics that suggest grotesque unfairness at the heart of the American economy. They won't get much of a hearing in a mainstream media obsessed with the problems of the fortunate. But there is hope that a critical mass of actions by them, like the Washington civil rights march of 1963, will eventually force those at the top to take notice.

A few innovative CEO's already are. For example, Costco is a large retailer which pays workers far better than WalMart. Why the success of firms like it?
Many conscientious companies such as Costco are performing well financially. Over the last few years, Nordstrom, the Container Store, Sephora, REI, and Whole Foods Market, all of which are known for treating employees well, have outpaced rivals. “This is the lesson Costco teaches,” says Doug Stephens, founder of the consulting firm Retail Prophet and author of the forthcoming The Retail Revival. “You don’t have to be Nordstrom selling $1,200 suits in order to pay people a living wage. That is what Walmart has lost sight of. A lot of people working at Walmart go home and live below the poverty line. You expect that person to come in and develop a rapport with customers who may be spending more than that person is making in a week? You expect them to be civil and happy about that?”
Labor strife involving "Our WalMart" has enveloped Costco's low-pay rival. Of course, things aren't bad for the people who really matter at the company: "In 2012, three members of the Walton family each made over $4 billion just from stocks and other investments." Yet for customers shocked by empty WalMart shelves, and taxpayers effectively subsidizing WalMart workers who need to apply for food stamps and Medicaid, the low-wage model isn't working.

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