Can We Finally Treat Food Workers Fairly?
Two pieces of seemingly unrelated news last week show just how deficient our values are when it comes to the treatment of the lowest paid workers in our economy, the largest portion of whom are employed in the food chain.
First, Los Angeles followed Seattle and San Francisco in setting its minimum wage at $15 per hour. With New York looking as if it might join the club, $15 could become the new, de facto $7.25, the current federal minimum hourly wage. (As I've mentioned before, many tipped workers make even less than that.) A couple of days later, Walmart, among the worst offenders in the realm of labor abuse, announced that it would push its suppliers for improvements in ... animal welfare.
If Walmart's new rules are enforced, they'd be stricter and more humane than any set by federal agencies. But the standards are voluntary, vague and without a deadline; and the company has a history of not following through on its promises.
And what does it say that you can buy a can of tuna guaranteed to be dolphin-safe but can't guarantee that its human producers — fishers, processors, transporters, packers, sales representatives — haven't been abused?
It's difficult to cheer an announcement by a corporation whose labor- and farmer-crushing techniques are world renowned. Walmart specializes — indeed, is the leader — in driving down supplier prices regardless of true costs and in under-employing workers for a variety of deplorable reasons, like avoiding paying benefits or providing health care, making it difficult to unionize and making overtime pay out of the question.
The world's biggest food retailer and its ilk are a good part of the reason that our cities and states are stepping in and saying, quite simply, "Our workers deserve better." Though Los Angeles's new minimum is to be phased in over five years (that's a long time to wait if you're making $9 an hour right now), it will be linked to the Consumer Price Index in 2022, which means it could go even higher.
Yet Walmart insists that cost-cutting enables its "always low prices." (The slogan could as well be "always disproportionately high profits.") And opponents of a living wage will always break out the line that higher wages will close marginal businesses and therefore cost jobs.
But if you run a business that's dependent on labor at the poverty level or worse, and that business doesn't work if you pay workers something approaching a living wage, it isn't a viable business, from either the moral or practical point of view. (I wish the moral argument were sufficient, and it says a lot about the wayward path of our country that it isn't.) Practically: If the lowest-paid workers aren't on the job, there is no business.
I visited a big central California farm a couple of weeks ago, with 50 workers in a single field. Their days looked something like this: repetitive manual labor for two hours, then a 15-minute break; that same labor for two hours, then a 30-minute lunch; repeat, then a break; repeat, then go home. For this they were paid $10 an hour, or roughly $80 a day. This is seasonal work, but even if it were year-round employment, that $400 a week translates to $20,800 a year, barely above the poverty level for a family of four — and it carries no benefits. Yet without those workers, the rest of us don't eat salad.
This exploitative situation works great for the operation's owners and for those of us with money. It reminded me that the plantation system of the Old South benefited its genteel owners and consumers of its products. But it was enabled by slavery, which wasn't abolished simply because it was wrong, but because it wasn't sustainable. Paying people less than a living wage is the 21st century version of this.
Slaves, it might be remembered, were actually dislocated by abolition. Few would argue against freedom, but systematic discrimination, homelessness and unemployment were not exactly painless consequences. Thus thefallout from slavery and its aftereffects are still felt today, the core of Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerfully persuasive arguments for reparations.
When you look at who does the work in the food system, it is clear we haveinstitutionalized racism, we exploit immigrants to do the work citizens won't stoop to do, and we are as a society abiding the consequences of employers who underpay workers. These consequences will be felt for decades or even centuries in the form of an economy that features the further accumulation of wealth in a small fraction of society and a lack of socioeconomic mobility for almost everyone else. How much more money does the Walton family and their class need?
The mantras that raising the minimum wage is "bad for the economy" and "kills jobs and businesses" are gibberish. Report after report shows that higher wages throughout the system are a boost to the economy, not job killers. Higher wages are a stimulus, since low-paid people — unlike the rich — recirculate every dollar they earn, yielding a multiplier effect and supporting both local and national businesses.
There is no social contract or obligation to prop up businesses that pay starvation wages while shareholders become richer. In fact, the American proposition is that workers get the fair treatment their productivity merits and that we'd all expect were we in their place. Yet most workers areproducing more and earning less, and the differential between those two elements is what's enriching the Waltons and others like them.
It would be foolish to invest faith in capitalists leading the charge for better lives for laborers, but even Henry Ford famously doubled the minimum wage on his lines, recognizing that "unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers."
Ford wanted his employees to buy his products; yet there are McDonald's employees who can't afford its food. (Or rent.) And that behemoth's latest move, as it strives to become a "progressive burger company"? To buy back shares and give further profits to shareholders, rather than to raise wages throughout its system.
President Obama's attempt to raise the federal minimum wage to a still-paltry $10.10 is stalled. Last month, McDonald's magnanimously gave 90,000 of its workers a one-dollar raise. Yet this month, Los Angeles raised the minimum for almost a million people by $6.
That's a direct consequence of the Fight for $15. Considered nearly ridiculous and certainly pie-in-the-sky just a year ago, this has become the most successful labor movement in the country, relying on demonstrating, organizing, striking and even publicly shaming those who belong in some Dickensian 19th-century netherworld. To reverse the decline in the status of workers, to bring about positive change in people's lives, we'll need to see more of that.