Overdue wage equality ripples are spreading

What she knows, what matters most, is what it means to her family.

It means she can stop getting food stamps. It means they can ditch their clunker for a real car. It means she’ll make enough to cover more than the mortgage and utility bills.

The fight for fair wages landed last week on Nabintu Namwira’s doorstep. The Lexington Food Co-Op – for practical and philosophical reasons – bumped hourly starting pay from $9 to $11.25. The 25 percent boost will help Namwira, who arrived from the Republic of Congo four years ago, her working husband and their five kids to lift their heads above water. It shouldn’t be too much to ask, in the world’s greatest country.

“This helps so much,” said Namwira, 39, a woman of soft voice and steady gaze who works full time at the Elmwood Village store. “Sometimes it is hard to feed the kids, to give them what they need, to plan for anything.”

This is how it will go. One by one, the dominoes fall, the pressure extends, paychecks inflate. Small victory by small victory, the fight for fair pay marches on.

Buffalo last week became the latest upstate city to phase in, over five years, a $15 minimum wage. It comes in the wake of a similar statewide hike for fast-food workers and state government employees. All of which ups the living-wage ante for grocers, nursing homes, big-box retailers, hotels and other lower-pay outposts. In the competition for workers, anybody who doesn’t step up will fall behind.

“I think you’ll see a ripple effect on wages,” said Kirk Laubenstein of the Coalition for Economic Justice, which pushed the $15 minimum wage, “and that’s a good thing.”

That’s partly what drove the Co-Op board. They wanted, philosophically, to pay workers a living wage. They need, for practical purposes, to compete for labor as the push for income equality spreads.

“We want to be ahead of the wage market,” Tim Bartlett, Co-Op general manager, told me Friday in his Elmwood Avenue office. “We’re competing with the best grocers in the country. We need the best possible talent.”

The bottom-up lift has been a long time coming. You don’t have to be Karl Marx to get worked up over the wage chasm. According to the Economic Policy Institute, worker pay increased 10 percent in the past 35 years – while the average CEO pocketed 937 percent more. Minimum-wage workers have less buying power today than 45 years ago. The rich got richer, while the middle class paddled in place and the bottom of the pool deepened.

America was overdue for an adjustment. It’s ridiculous when taxpayers help to cover – from food stamps to Medicaid – worker costs for hugely profitable fast-food chains. It’s a nice business model, if you can get away with it.

“This isn’t the right use of the social safety net,” said the CEJ’s Laubenstein. “For a full day’s work, you should be able to put food on the table.”

Some business groups say the higher minimum wage will prompt layoffs and speed job-slicing automation. Granted, any change brings shape-shifting. But wage fairness is a long time coming. And the sky-is-falling scenario is debunked by the Fiscal Policy Institute, which said reduced turnover and training will bump up productivity and balance fast-food pay hikes.

If the economy can support obscenely compensated CEOs and multimillion-dollar payouts for executives – as with the recent First Niagara Bank fiasco – then it can handle a few extra dollars for bottom-rung workers. Who will, not incidentally, have more money to spend.

For the Lexington Co-Op board, it wasn’t just the right thing to do. It was the smart thing. By training workers in multiple jobs, the Co-Op upped productivity, which led to the raises that enhance worker loyalty.

“We feel we can balance fair wages for staff, fair prices for customers and fair pay for our farmers,” Bartlett told me. “We have plans of how to up productivity even more, so we can continue to increase wages.”

It’s a model for others to follow. Although not a traditional for-profit business, the growth of the Co-Op’s eco-friendly, local-produce mission depends on making money. The bottom line is still the bottom line.

“We believe that higher wages will attract better staff, and generate more sales and profit,” said Bartlett. “We feel this is something we can do.”

It works for Nabintu Namwira. It will work for countless others like her.

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