I can't help but connect Labor Day and labor issues to the challenge of poverty and homelessness. For many, poverty and 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? Are Hoosier neighbors concerned that many full-time workers cannot afford market-rate 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 keep a roof over their heads?
These not-talked-about practices are “Hoosier values” that daily impact many 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, mind you; not even union-leveraged incomes. But just enough to afford housing and stability. Listening to some local influence groups, however, you’d think the idea of a livable wage was a sinister socialist plot.
A generation ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that "there is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family." Shortsightedness--or something a bit more selfish or cynical--apparently continues to determine wage practices and policies today. Many in the business sector resist paying livable wages and benefits to workers because of the cost and potential loss of jobs. Yet, few businesses and government policy-makers dare to honestly factor the high economic and human cost of unlivable wages and denial of basic benefits for millions of Americans.
All of us cannot work directly on the issues of poverty and 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 advocated for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Its passage would have reversed a generation of bullying, intimidation, illegal firings, and manipulation of workers who try to exercise their right to form a union in their workplace.
Aside from 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.
Labor practices and livable wages--or a careless disregard for them--impacts the entire community and society. Beyond the very hard impacts on homelessness, health, and survival, labor practices have to do with our very sense of community--with neighbors both near and far. Robert Bellah, leading 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, disintegrating spiral and begin to restore what is fair, what is right, what is just for all who live as neighbors in a common endeavor? What can you do in your sphere of influence to upgrade hourly workers' wages and make a an important dent in the specter of homelessness and disintegration of community?