Monday, September 7, 2009

LABOR DAY, HOMELESSNESS & COMMUNITY

For many, homelessness begins in the workplace.  It doesn't have to be this way. 

[This is an update of my Letter to the Editor that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on Labor Day 2007.]


INSUFFICIENT WAGES FOR HOUSING. I can't help but connect Labor Day and labor issues to the challenge of homelessness. For many, homelessness begins in the workplace. Simply put: many workers can’t afford to live on the wages they receive. Does the community consider it an injustice when a minimum-wage laborer must work 82 hours a week to afford the average apartment in Indianapolis? Is the community concerned that many full-time workers cannot access affordable housing? Is it an acceptable ethical practice to build a business plan that counts on hiring most of one’s workforce only part-time to avoid paying benefits and fulfilling obligations required by law for full-time laborers, forcing workers into second and third jobs to try to get a roof over their heads?

ARE THESE OUR "HOOSIER VALUES?" These not-talked-about practices are “Hoosier values” that daily impact many homeless and near-homeless neighbors in Central Indiana. They fly in the face of a national survey that indicates 97% of Americans agree that every worker deserves a livable wage. Not high pay, not even union-leveraged incomes, just enough to afford housing and enjoy stability. But to listen to some local influence groups (like the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce), you’d think the idea of a livable wage was a sinister communist plot.

WHAT WE CAN DO. All of us cannot work directly on the issue of homelessness. But all of us can advocate for and make available livable wage incomes for laborers wherever possible. We can begin by ensuring that workers have a right to form a union and engage in collective bargaining. That's one reason I am advocating for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act that is now before Congress.  Its passage will reverse a generation of bullying, intimidation, illegal firings, and manipulation of workers who try to exercise their right to form a union in their workplace.

TOOLS FOR LIVING WAGES.  In addition to collective bargaining, there are various tools and approaches that can bring worker wages--particularly in the unskilled and service industries--into a range in which a person can afford to live on the income for which they labor. One tool is free or low-cost trades and technology education available to every worker or unemployed person desiring it. Another is a living wage covenant supported by communities for all companies doing business within their jurisdictions. Another is to upgrade the earned income or housing tax credit for folks whose incomes amount to less than 200% of poverty. These are just a few possibilities.

LOSING SOLIDARITY. Labor practices and livable wages--or a careless disregard for them--impacts the entire community and society. It has to do with our very sense of community. Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society writes:

"We are facing trends, particularly downsizing and downgrading the work force, that threaten our basic sense of solidarity with others, solidarity with those near to us (loyalty to neighborhood, colleagues at work, fellow residents of our town or city), but also solidarity with those who live far from us, those who are economically in situations very different from our own, those of other nations."
Isn't it time to reverse this ugly, disintegrtaing spiral and begin to restore what is fair, what is right, what is just for all who live as neigbors in a common endeavor?

In the spirit of dialog, I welcome comments and/or questions. Click on "responses" below to post. They're moderated only to reduce incivility.

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