No Matter Your Skills, It All Comes Down to Wages
In the absence of organized resistance, the current age of rising inequality, low wages, high un- and underemployment and increasing economic precariousness will persist indefinitely. —Alan Nasser, The Evergreen State College, Olympia.
Stop Dividing and Conquering the Workers
First, I offer a digression from the local perspective on wage gap, the skills “gap,” and the great sucking sound of the middle class fluttering down to hand to mouth existence. One in four under five years of age is living in poverty in this country, something Nobel laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz laments in his New York Times series called, “The Great Divide”:
“Our divisions are deep. Economic and geographic segregation have immunized those at the top from the problems of those down below,” Stiglitz writes. “Like the kings of yore, they have come to perceive their privileged positions essentially as a natural right. Our economy, our democracy and our society have paid for these gross inequities. The true test of an economy is not how much wealth its princes can accumulate in tax havens, but how well off the typical citizen is—even more so in America where our self-image is rooted in our claim to be the great middle-class society. But median incomes are lower than they were a quarter-century ago. Growth has gone to the very, very top, whose share has almost quadrupled since 1980. Money that was meant to have trickled down has instead evaporated in the balmy climate of the Cayman Islands.”
Planning Crisis to Crisis, and Still, the Majority are Barely Getting By
Crisis after crisis invades our communities like plagues—from a $1.5 trillion student loan collective albatross around future generations’ necks, to highly skilled and educated workers getting short shrift through billionaires and political failures working in concert for their paymasters to maximize profits by downsizing, outsourcing and mechanizing/digitizing good work. We can whittle it all down to a disconnected and unfair system that privatizes profits but socializes all the costs, including pollution (think of Flint, Michigan’s lead in the water problem); wars (who benefits from oil wars?); welfare (more prisoners, more for-profit prison profiteers); education (firing teachers in lieu of packed classrooms and standardized computer correspondence “schooling”); research and development (everything from pharmaceuticals, medical cures, engineering feats, computing genius comes from publicly funding top-notch universities); and much more.
Every technical and community college in Washington has had wave after wave of re-centering and boondoggle programming around each “next big thing” the business community promotes and continues to pressure legislators to get paid for in education and training at the public’s expense. In a country that incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—2.3 million are now in jails and prisons, and by many measures, 68 million Americans have some form of criminal record.
The economic divide still all boils down to wages, which are by many conservative economists’ opinion 40 years stagnant. Those of us who consider ourselves part of the working lower middle class category, take a big breath before continuing:
The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.
Show Me the Money, Or Make that Dollar Stretch!
Asked about the $15 an hour minimum wage for workers movement, Kai Huschke, local civic engagement and social justice activist—who helped spearhead the Community Bill of Rights and the Workers’ Bill of Rights—sees the number “15” as a “sweet spot” for the state overall.
“My sense is that having a number is easy,” Kai says. “You get paid $9 and we are advocating that you get paid $15. Straightforward math. This $15 or $17 is also a sweet spot, at least in Washington state, being that it would mean a living wage for a single person most everywhere in the state.”
This state is one where that wealth gap is most dramatic. Maybe not so physically apparent or in your face as we see in communities like Seattle or Vancouver since the housing stock in Spokane is aging. Additionally, how much more money one has over their neighbors is not evident by the facades of old Craftsman homes next to an aging bungalow.
However, experts in urban planning and community development note that even in a city like Seattle, those old suburbs with winding roads and endless cul-de-sacs are being called the “new ghettos.” These 1950s and even 1980s homes are worn down, in need of major repairs and serve as abodes to workers and multiple workers. Many foster homes for adults with dementia, disabilities or just as convalescent centers are also sited in those suburbs.
As always, the old adage—don’t judge a book by its cover—has been remixed and retrofitted in a world where even the poor have smart phones, 50-inch flat screen TVs and newer cars.
Bite the Hand that Steals from You
We are our own worst enemies, since Americans consume corporate press propaganda, have few labor education history classes taught in schools, and are seeing more teachers throwing in the towel while state school departments are buying more packaged, inadequate standardized test prep software where now teaching is turning into managing bubble-in exam sessions.
I asked Kai Huschke to answer all those hyper-active critics on the blogsphere and at Tea Party rallies who wrongly see any form of public commons, public safety nets and wage parity and taxation system to exact from the CEOs and owners of companies their fair share of burdens heaped upon workers and the communities they work in as socialism, or communism.
“My question back, is what is it costing right now by not paying workers a fair wage or treating them fairly on the job?” Kai asks. “Let’s see: massive personal debt, drug use, high crime rates, domestic instability, poor health, close to zero civic engagement, and a disconnection from nature itself. Paying workers $15 doesn’t even come close to rectifying the cataclysmic deficit that has mounted because the ‘free market’ has been allowed to dictate, not only wages for the overwhelming majority of people in Spokane and this country, but nearly every aspect of corporate behavior that directly impacts our lives.”
Again, the local $17-an-hour activist weighs in: “Just like profit for profit’s sake or development for development’s sake, we must get away from the mindset of a job for job’s sake, no matter how well that job may pay,” Kai says. “You’d think that people would be drawing a line, saying we want fairness and just compensation but not at the expense of destroying the planet or exploiting other people. The brotherhood and sisterhood of workers, whether they come together in an organized fashion or not, needs to claim the greatest say in what kind of economy we will have.”
Kai and hundreds of teachers, writers, thinkers and workers I know and talk with wonder why the American worker today is so unwilling to demand more, or strike to be heard, now that we see an extractive economy that is “literally killing us” with the by-product being climate change and destabilized global economies. I find it like talking in Greek to young people today when attempting to school them on the history of early 20th century American labor activism and the hundreds and hundreds of strikes where the means of production stopped. One key fact in those worker shutdowns of unfair workplaces is that non-strikers also supported this tactic.
It’s Decreasing Poverty, Stupid . . . The Centerpiece of Almost Everything is the Health of People
You might find it interesting that people like education historian Diane Ravitch, the lone liberal who helped George H.W. Bush’s administration create No Child Left Behind (she now curses the program), sees bridging the poverty gap as the main way to attain educational markers many states like Washington and Oregon are aspiring toward—all students graduating with a highschool degree, 40 percent going on to obtain a two-year school diploma, and another 40 percent hitting the books for a bachelor’s degree with the other 20 percent entering skilled or certification trade programs.
Getting feedback on the wage and skills gap from Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD), I find it’s clear that all economic issues are closely tied together—educational attainment, economic sustainability, and physical/mental health.
“The unfair distribution of health and length of life provides compelling enough reason for action across all social determinants,” says Kim Papich, public information officer for SRHD. “However, there are other important reasons for taking action. Addressing continued inequities in early child development, in young people’s educational achievement and acquisition of skills, in sustainable and healthy communities, in social and health services, and in employment and working conditions will have multiple benefits that extend beyond reductions in health inequities.”
Kim asked several at Spokane Regional Health District to weigh in on the wage and skills gap here in Spokane. Any number of experts and nonprofits know that Spokane’s higher than state level poverty and educational attainment factor into the health equation. Better education is the key, but young people need involved parents, extracurricular activities, better neighborhood schools and a society that values all sorts of education.
“Reducing our large and persistent health inequities requires taking a broader, deeper look at how health is shaped across lifetimes and generations,” Kim says. “Finding solutions to avoidable differences in the health of our community requires looking beyond the medical care system to acknowledge and address the many other social and economic factors that also can determine a person’s health.”
Systemic changes around wages, the types of work we pursue, and the rights around labor and citizen control over the playing field and political landscape are always at the forefront of change agents and thinkers, but as Kai and others know, the corporations currently control the media, the message, the courts, education centers, and the means of getting politicians to listen.
A Healthy Economy is Unfettered People’s Banks and People Calling the Shots
For Elizabeth Warren and Ellen Brown, a nationwide state bank system is required for people to have the power of savings accounts that pay 4 or 5 percent interest rates, loans at the local level, certificates of deposit that in turn make interest and support infrastructure projects, and possessing a neutral place to do financial transactions. North Dakota is one place with a state bank, reaching back 97 years, and, thus, has become a hallmark of the state bank movement.
The types of companies coming to a city and the nature of work we are expected to do as workers must be through the right of (local) community self-government, many believe. We can’t let companies dictate future generations’ lives through indebtedness around their profit margins and stockholders’ expectations of 15 or 20 percent returns on investment.
It’s clear to a large number of citizens and experts that we have to plan for food shortages, water security and droughts through regional and multi-state bio-regional planning. The same holds true of all things tied to economics. Dog eat dog can’t work to anyone’s benefit. Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Colville most definitely need a new overlay for joint economic development, working seamlessly to make sure we do not have duplication of services, competing industries and this endless cycle of boom or bust that has been the hallmark of America since first contact.
No matter how much we work putting intellectual and financial energy into think tanks, policy studies, reports and research projects tied to what can bridge the wage and skills gap, we have to rethink this consumer society.
Many in the $15 an hour movement, from Seattle to Missoula, and all parts south, want real progress toward living wages. It is revolutionary, only in that we might have to go back in history when the rich were taxed at a higher rate, corporations were regulated and workers were really organized.
Kai sees it this way: “A constitutionally protected power—at the state and federal level—that would allow communities to implement greater rights and protections whether it be for people, workers, neighborhoods, or nature . . . elimination of corporate rights, powers, and privileges when it conflicts with that of the community’s rights. Put another way, a subordination of corporations (a piece of property) to living, breathing, sentient beings (people and nature).”
This story about the health of Spokane’s economy and the well being of the youth, both born and unborn, could be a standing column in this magazine. With two parts, we see some solutions and hope, settled on a much different way of thinking about what is progress, success, community well-being and what it means to do work that is community-driven.
It’s always good to end these stories with some cold splash of water, so here’s what Alan Nasser, professor of political economy and philosophy at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, has to say about the perceived middle class Americans tout as this country’s so-called gift to the world:
“The Golden Age, like the 1920s, was an age of a debt-junkie nation of poor workers. The much touted ‘vanishing middle class’ is rooted in time-released conditions fully in place during the Golden Age. Poor workers were allowed to mask their economic insecurity with debt-financed widgets permitted by their social and economic masters on the condition that they agree in exchange to turn over a significant portion of their future earnings to those masters, and at a time when they could least afford it. I’d call those workers poor from the get-go.”
Paul K. Haeder is a freelance writer who worked in Spokane as a community college instructor and journalist for more than 12 years.
The positions taken in Metro Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living’s publisher, editor or staff.
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