Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Small Business should join the campaign for a $15 an hour minimum wage

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retiired

In the light of the momentum that the $15 an hour minimum wage is getting and the success of Kshawa Sawant’s campaign in Seattle that won her a city council seat, a number of readers of this blog have raised with me that most small businesses are unable to pay their workers $15 an hour; they’d go out of business. I had to deal with this issue when I ran for office.

I was a candidate for Oakland (CA) City Council in 1996 and one of my major campaign issues was a $10 an hour minimum wage.  It was quite an experience and I learned a lot. I had campaigned for a $10 minimum wage in the union movement since the 1980’s. But after a couple of these public debates which aren’t really debates at all, I would be approached by small business owners about this issue.  I remember one guy who owned a coffee shop in the Fruitvale area who said he had no objection to paying $15 an hour but he literally couldn’t keep the business if he had to do so.

I should make it clear that small business to me is a community business, one that is dependent on a local community and whose owners live in that community. It is not a Silicon Valley start up with 100 employees.  A community business like a coffeehouse, restaurant, the local barber, plumber or local butchers that may or may not employ a few people is what I’m referring to.

My response was always that firstly I am not a candidate of small business, I am a workers’ candidate*. A workers’ candidate has to have a platform to meet workers needs.  However, many community business owners are sympathetic, some are not.  But the line between a wageworker and a small business owner is often very narrow and more often than not, people have been on both sides of it or have one foot on one side and one on the other. It is important for workers and socialists in particular to have an approach to what we would generally refer to in the classic sense as the middle class.

I support the $15 minimum wage campaign although even $15 is inadequate.  But for millions of workers it would double their income, this is no small thing.  Socialists should argue that community businesses should also support this campaign; it is in their interest to support it.  The workers’ movement should make it clear that part of our struggle is to free community business from the stranglehold the corporations, the health care industry and the banks and insurance companies have over their economic lives so they can afford to pay $15 an hour.

Our movement must demand a national health care program providing service on demand. It is ridiculous to place the burden of providing medical insurance for their three of four employees on the shoulders of the owners of a bagel shop. Medical care available on demand, should be a right in a civilized society and provided by the state to every member of society.  That a middleman in the form of an insurance corporation whose goal is profit should determine one’s health care access is not only barbaric, it is inefficient.

Community businesses are bled dry by insurance companies, banks, loan companies, big landlords and other leeches.  Taxes are another burden both workers and small business bear disproportionally.  This class, the small shopkeeper basically, is a class workers can win to our side in the struggle against big capital and the 1%, but our movement has to reach out to them too and we do that by showing that they can meet many of our demands if we direct our activity and power at big business, Wall Street and the two political parties that represent their interests. Workers with more money in our pockets are good for community business also.

Myself and other authors on this blog have shown many times that the money is there.   The massive wealth of people like Larry Ellison, Donald Trump, Warren Buffet to name a few, as well as the hedge fund managers and private equity lords; we have to tap in to that. The Walton heirs alone have more wealth than 90 million Americans. The billionaires at Blackstone and Goldman Sachs have been spending as much as $100 million a week buying foreclosed homes that the bankers have stolen from those who lived in them and renting them back to the occupants in many cases.  The people that head these outfits are social parasites. They are over in Spain and other distressed economies doing the same thing there.

Besides this, there is the trillions spent on wars that are not wars to defend us but wars to defend the profits of the giant global multi-nationals. Freeing the small businesses from the clutches of these institutions would allow them to pay a $15 an hour wage or more. We must take this approach as we make it clear that we fight for workers' rights  not for the right of business to pay $7.50 an hour or the lowest wage possible.

Another aspect of this issue is the question of the ownership of capital and its allocation in society.  As a mass movement of workers and youth arises it can run independent candidates rooted firmly in this movement and around demands that speak to workers’ needs and the needs of society as a whole.  This in my opinion is how a national independent party of working people can arise, based on our movement, our organizations in the workplaces and communities, and including those small businesses that are a healthy part of a vibrant community that  predatory corporate practices destroy.

Such a party can then change the tax system that presently favors the 1% and the giant corporations.  An independent workers’ political party can nationalize the banks and financial industry so that small business and other sections of society will have access to cheap capital based on how it benefits our communities. The wealth in society is a collective product; how it is allocated and used should be a collective decision taken democratically by those whose labor creates it.

If we look at who suffers in great depressions it is not the 1%, it is not the big bankers and the heads of industry or Goldman Sachs; it is workers, the poor and the community business.  This small business class is sandwiched between two powerful classes in society, the big capitalists and the working class, wage earners of all types not just blue collar workers like myself. The small business owners can be pulled in either direction, to either camp, toward the 1% or towards us.

Some elements of this group are right wing anti-worker and anti-union and would never agree with our point of view.  But many are not; after all, economic self-interest is important; socialist have to show them that they are included in our vision of the future.  Either the workers’ movement draws them in or our enemies will.

* I made it clear in my electoral campaign that we have won precious little through the ballot box and that electing one person cannot change things.  Political office is a means to help build the direct action, mass movement on the streets that has the real power to change society. 

1 comment:

Julian Silverman said...

I don't know quite how it works in the States, but over here you would ask small shopkeepers etc. "What is the reason you can't pay a living wage? How much are you paying in rent? Who to?"

[0.7% of the population own 2/3rds of the land in the UK. Urban development land can be worth 100 times that in the country. Most of it belongs to corporations and/or absentee landlords. These landlords do not pay 'council tax' on the contrary they receive enormous subsidies simply for possessing land. They are paid not to grow anything on it in case this should lower the value of the produce. The centre of London - the West End - Oxford Circus, the appropriately named Regents Street etc. - belongs to the Royal Family - other parts belong to the Church of England or the Duke of Westminster and other hereditary peers - large parts of Kentish Town where I lived are actually owned by St Johns College Cambridge {who put up the rent 400% in one year}; the Kensal Rise free public library, opened by Mark Twain, belongs to All Souls College Oxford and is now closed and being sold off.....Property developers or rather, nowadays, mostly private equity fund and hedge fund manipulators - are sitting on development land watching the values go up and not even bothering to build etc. etc.]

And then "How much are your business rates [local tax]? " These are set low enough to be acceptable to big supermarkets etc. but are unaffordable to all but fast food chains, betting conglomerates, beauty salon magnates etc. even pubs are closing. Beneficiaries are Estate Agents, which are flooding the high street, opening up new gaudy consumerist lifestyle offices daily and also the major supermarkets and shopping centres. George Monbiot reckoned that their electricity demands were 6 times that of productive industry. They dominate agribusiness, help to ruin small farmers, undermine local street markets and take business away from small shops in streets where there are no or only ridiculously expensive parking facilities. Not content with that, these supermarket chains, the biggest and most rapacious firms in the UK, are continually opening up small 'local' or 'mini' outlets on the high street with no other purpose than to undermine their small independent rivals. Even these 'independents' are mostly forced to source their stock from the same or similar global trading companies that supply the supermarkets without being able to take advantage of 'reduced 'economies of scale' pricing. [Nevertheless, their geographical advantage and monopoly position enables supermarkets to sell a greater (often ludicrously exaggerated) variety of goods at consistently higher prices in supermarkets than in street markets etc.!]

And there is also the unwillingness of banks to lend to what they see as not too reliable small businesses and so on, and so on.....

In other words the fight for a minimum wage is also a fight against the banking system, the system of land ownership, the taxation system, the class system, agribusiness, the domination of big business etc. etc.