“A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work,” do you subscribe to this ethic? I certainly do. I cannot envision another ethic more appropriate for the relationship between labor and capital. Originally coined as the motto for the English working-class movement of the 1820s, it was also adopted by the American Federation of Labor and still stands as their official motto today.
While unionism has become increasingly maligned in contemporary America, the resonance of this simple ethic of fair pay still rings true. Of course, the application of any such moral principle is subject to definition, and the devil is in the detail. One person’s notion of “fair” may be very different from another’s, but like so many things, while we may not be able to easily define such “fairness,” most people do know it when they see it.
Wages are, after all, driven by market conditions, and as such vary from job to job. One would not expect a janitor to be paid the same as a skilled computer programmer, or an electrician the same as somebody serving up Big Macs. But at the same time, it doesn’t take a great deal of analysis to recognize the patent unfairness that led to the American labor movement — the situation where women working in the garment industry of the 1830s toiled for 16 hours a day to earn $2.00 a week — nor does it require a degree in economics to appreciate the inequity of the richest 1% taking 93% of all gains in our present economic recovery.
Perhaps not a perfect tool, but the Know-It-When-You-See-It lens can still prove valuable when used to gauge many of the situations present in America today. For instance, I’m sure that most CEOs would argue that they provide services to their companies far in excess of their average worker, but does the KIWYSI lens concur when gauging their meteoric rise in relative compensation, from 24-to-1 in 1965 to an unbelievable 431-to-1 in 2004? How can this possibly be fair in the sense of a “fair day’s pay,” especially when set against a backdrop of stagnant pay for workers and a nationwide median household income that actually dropped recently for the first time since 1967?
It’s not fair. In fact, it’s both grossly unfair and extremely destructive toward the larger economy. Modern American society depends on a vibrant and well-compensated middle class to provide the demand needed to fuel its economic engines, and when a disproportionate share of total compensation is siphoned off instead to feed the over-accumulation of an elite few — everyone else suffers.
Nowhere is this disparity more apparent today than when looking at America’s working poor, and one need look no further than our nation’s largest employer to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, employs more than 1.2 million people in the United States, their average employee being paid a whopping $8.81 per hour. Such meager pay, especially when accompanied by equally poor benefits, does allow Wal-Mart to maintain low prices while enjoying extremely high profits — currently roaring in at around $13 billion (with a “B”) annually — but since hundreds of thousands of their workers are compensated below the poverty line, they require government assistance, such as food stamps, just to make ends meet.
Defenders of compensation schemes such as those used by Wal-Mart seem to focus on the benefit ostensibly delivered to the consumer in the form of low prices, while at the same time ignoring entirely the impact of the government subsidizing their profits. This is a form of “wealthfare,” one where consumers receive discounts on the surface but pay far more in the long run in the form of increased taxes and an economy stifled by low demand stemming from ever-increasing concentration of wealth.
It’s not like Wal-Mart is in need of such subsidies. They’re not struggling to make a profit. The Walton family has done quite well with their little retail chain. Still holding 48% of company stock, the family is worth a combined total of $103 billion — 6 people with more money than the poorest 30% of the American public. Yet the company can’t afford to pay its employees a living wage? A quick look through that KIWYSI lens reveals but one conclusion — fairness is a virtue not well practiced in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Fortunately, even in the face of fierce company opposition, many Wal-Mart workers have decided to let their voices be heard. Through strikes that began last month, workers fed up with being reprimanded for speaking out against low pay, adverse work conditions and unaffordable healthcare are taking a stand. That stand will culminate with pickets at more than 1,000 Wal-Mart stores across the nation on Black Friday.
Those of us who embrace the notion of a “fair day’s pay” need to stand in solidarity with our fellow American workers and amplify their voices with our support. I don’t work at Wal-Mart, neither do I know anyone who does, but I have added by name in support of their efforts, and I will stand with them this Friday.
Sadly, this really isn’t about Wal-Mart; it’s about an economic system that has increasingly benefitted the wealthy at the expense of working and middle class Americans. For more than 30 years, the rich have gotten much, much richer, to the point where the richest 1% now hold more financial wealth than the poorest 95% of our population, and the United States ranks among nations with the most unequal wealth distribution in the world — worse than Iran or China.
Solidarity is the only effective response to oppression, and as pastor Martin Niemoller so eloquently communicated in his statement “First They Came,” it only takes root when those of us with no personal stake stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who do. Some will be motivated purely by their sense of fairness, but all should find reason in the knowledge that they might be next, for nobody who works for a living is safe from the ravages of a system that sacrifices labor at the altar of capital.
If you do nothing else, please, please stay away from Wal-Mart this Black Friday. Don’t do anything and help the working poor of America. What better thing to not do in the spirit of the holidays? It just might be the most important thing you don’t do all year.