Guest Opinion: The Wage Question

By Don Barber

Thank you for your informative article on living wage. (“The Wage Question,” November 20 issue of Tompkins Weekly)

Your final paragraph was a key fact that the tax reform zealots have lost sight of; namely that an economy starts and ends with customers buying. Not tax cuts to the wealthy, with the trickled down hope that they will devise more production for consumers with stagnant purchasing power. If this was discussed by all interviewees, they may have had stronger language that paying a living wage allows a greater portion of our community to participate more fully in our economy. When consumers are available, business has no problem figuring out a way to supply them.

In my opinion, this article missed an important point. Your article framed the question as a choice between profits and fair wage. The entire article assumed that the economic model we must work in has the owners of business and the workers as different classes of persons. In the current model, owners pay themselves fair wages. When workers are the owners they also pay themselves fair wages. As long as we stay stuck in the mindset that there are two classes of people – business owners and workers – fair wages will be the question. When we all become the same class, fair wages is no longer in question.

The article doesn’t mention a third class of persons in our economy: Investors which also play a role in wage rates. Investing sounds like a gift but, really, investors can only stay in business by extracting wealth from our community to recoup their investment with interest. When their project doesn’t pay fair wages, they recapture their investment quicker. The worst scenario is the public sector supporting the capitalist with tax breaks, while also supporting the underpaid worker through the public safety net of social services, welfare assistance, etc.

The article mentions Tompkins County living wage employers, which are mostly small businesses that have competed very nicely for decades with businesses that don’t pay a living wage. I know, I owned one and sold it to my employees. Your article highlights some of the reasons why they are successful – high morale, less turnover, and less training. And these companies teamwork at integrating new technologies, better marketing, better planning, and efficiency of operations. This is important information for next steps.

We consumers and our local governments can play a pivotal role here. We can prioritize our purchases and financial support, like tax incentives, to worker-owned businesses. And as a condition for any public support for the employer model, economic equity can be a requirement whereby top management earns no more than three times the lowest paid worker. Yes, it is possible, if we allow ourselves to envision owners and workers as the same class with the same goal.

The wage question will be answered when our purchases and economic development policy supports all citizen’s ability to participate.

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Don Barber, current deputy supervisor (and former town supervisor) for the Town of Caroline, was the founder of Sunny Brook Builders. The town and business both became certified living wage employers during his tenure. He lives in Brooktondale.