Advocates push for Living Wage
Community members almost outnumbered students Wednesday night at what started out as an informative panel on the Oberlin Living Wage proposal, but ended up dissolving into bickering as opposing factions of the audience traded barbs about each other’s conduct in the fight against Wal-Mart.
Most audience members seemed to decline side-taking; the division seemed to be between those who support how the city council of Oberlin has responded to the threat of Wal-Mart and those who blame the city council for it. The evening was called to a close just short of an imminent throwdown with attorney Gerald Phillips and his community comrade Mark Chesler on one side, and City Council chairman Daniel Gardner on the other, illustrating just how heated this issue has become.
To Oberlin students who are not familiar with every detail of the ongoing Wal-Mart drama, the episode may have posed more questions than it answered about Oberlin community relations. Fortunately, the better part of the night was devoted to a lengthy explanation of what the Living Wage proposal is. In the end, the panelists talked about why it’s good, and why Wal-Mart is bad.
The panel was moderated by Phillips, the lawyer advocating for the Living Wage charter in the city of Oberlin. Before introducing the first speaker, Phillips told the audience that Oberlin voters will have the opportunity to vote on the charter on Nov. 8. He also explained the basic provisions of the Living Wage charter.
The Living Wage, if implemented, would be a minimum worker salary imposed on Oberlin businesses that receive government subsidies above a certain threshold, with a higher wage required for companies that do not provide healthcare benefits for employees. Oberlin’s charter would also have exemptions for small businesses. The specifications of Oberlin’s charter are modeled on those of other Ohio cities like Cleveland, Lakewood and Toledo.
The first panelist, John Gallo from the Cleveland American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization, was involved in the formulation of the Cleveland Living Wage, a three-year process that began in 1998.
“A Living Wage [means] to not use public funds to promote poverty jobs,” Gallo said after explaining how business and commercial interests are supported by government money. “It’s to say that if a city is going to give government money to a company, the company should provide jobs to help the city so people can almost, or maybe can, support themselves [without welfare].”
Gallo demonstrated confidence in Oberlin’s capacity to benefit from a Living Wage ordinance.
“It’s something that’s necessary ,and it’s a good thing wherever it is, despite its weaknesses,” he said.
Gallo also firmly asserted that living wages will boost, not harm, economic well-being in cities where they are instituted because they provide higher wages to residents who will spend all of their money on goods and services within the city.
Rick Fromberg, who took the podium after Gallo, drew the discussion to Wal-Mart. Fromberg is the Senior Regional Organizer of Wal-Mart Watch, a national organization working in coalition with 400 smaller groups around the country to “inform the public about some of Wal-Mart’s unfair business practices,” in Fromberg’s words.
“In every way, Wal-Mart is persisting in being a negative influence wherever they are,” he said.
Fromberg noted specifically that Wal-Mart’s average hourly wage is $9.68 per hour, $2.60 lower than the national retail average.
In Ohio, Wal-Mart’s average wage is only $9.46 per hour.
Fromberg moved on to cover Wal-Mart’s inadequate healthcare coverage – Wal-Mart only covers 44 percent of their employees nationally, whereas the average for large companies in the U.S. is 66 percent — as well as the effect that a Wal-Mart store can have on local communities and regional companies.
“For every Super Wal-Mart like the one proposed here in Oberlin, two small-size grocers are put out of business,” he said.
Wal-Mart is also responsible for forcing Rubbermaid, northeastern Ohio company and supplier of products Wal-Mart sells, to close its doors and move overseas in order to afford Wal-Mart’s “always low prices.”
Fromberg did emphasize that the goal of Wal-Mart Watch is not to shut down Wal-Mart, only to reform the company.
“As the biggest company in the world, Wal-Mart has an amazing amount of market power,” he said. “They could provide healthcare and a living wage to boost the entire economy.”
Amy Hanauer, the executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, spoke after Fromberg and brought his ideas about Wal-Mart’s potential to a cohesive conceptual level. Policy Matters Ohio is a nonprofit organization formed in January 2002 to “address issues facing working people,” Hanauer said. Her focus was the dichotomy in choices companies can make about their business practices.
“We talk about the high road and the low road,” she said.
The “low road” of profit-making involves avoiding taxation, paying low wages and denying employee benefits.
The “high road” is a path of community investment and high wages and benefits for employees.
After explaining the difference, Hanauer elaborated on the ways in which Wal-Mart has chosen the low road, citing lawsuits Wal-Mart has been involved in, including employee discrimination and child labor offenses. She also contrasted Wal-Mart with Costco, a similar “big-box” store that sells in bulk but has shown how the “high road” can be successful and profitable.
“If I’m going to leave you with one point, it’s that we want to subsidize the high road, and Wal-Mart kind of epitomizes the low road,” she finished.
Jaclyn Stacy, the regional organizer for Jobs with Justice, spoke briefly after Hanauer about her action-oriented work in fighting Wal-Mart. Stacy is helping to plan a national week of action against Wal-Mart from Nov. 13-19. She encouraged Oberlin students in the audience to get involved.
Bob Strommen, who represented the United Food and Commercial Workers, brought the panel discussion back to the Living Wage issue by recounting his experiences creating an ordinance in Lakewood, Ohio.
“What I’m saying to you is, work for this ordinance,” Strommen urged the audience. “The Living Wage ordinance is worth having. Wal-Mart is also worth fighting, but this ordinance is worth having quite apart from what it will or won’t do for Wal-Mart.”
As the panel moved into its question-and-answer session, audience members demonstrated their agreement with Strommen through concerned and sometimes quite opinionated statements. Dynamics in the lecture hall remained civil until a few people began directly attacking each other.
Despite its unfortunately negative ending, the panel was productive and the
well-informed and varied speakers were successful in shedding light on the
Living Wage proposal.