Happy Labor Day.
Around the office at Triad City Beat we say it with a wry smile.
We have a small crew and the work is relentless, from prospecting stories and sales on Thursdays and Fridays, to pursuing and executing leads and assignments over the weekend, writing and planning the next issue on Mondays, production on Tuesdays and distributing the paper on Wednesdays. The workload rarely varies and everyone’s effort is essential, so anytime one of us wants to take time off, it generally requires banking work a week or two in advance.
It suddenly strikes me as ironic and a little ridiculous that I’m in the office digesting the NC Justice Center’s State of Working North Carolina 2015 report in the early morning hours on Labor Day going into Tuesday.
My family doesn’t have the option of taking time off to celebrate Labor Day. For that matter, I’ve never been a member of a labor union, and as of the past 18 months I’m a shareholder in the company that employs me. But sincerely, fellow workers, I’m with you in spirit. All the way.
I’ve rehearsed the line about how we have labor unions to thank for the 40-hour workweek. But this truth has to be acknowledged: I’ve never had a 40-hour workweek, with the exception of 11 miserable months in 2003 and 2004 working in a newspaper sweatshop in New Mexico that forced its employees to grind out 12 stories per week in the allotted time. It left me anxious and sleepless in my downtime, while dreading the start of the new workweek.
If accelerated productivity, austerity and precarity are the hallmarks of a society where organized labor has been rendered powerless, then I would have to say the dream unraveled years ago. A significant pivot point in the American economy was reached in the mid-1970s, which happens to be the time when I was born. As the State of Working North Carolina 2015 report details, “The percentage of gross domestic product paid out to workers, often referred to as the ‘labor share,’ has slipped in many countries around the world. But the decline began in the United States in the mid-1970s and accelerated post-2008.”
How it happened is no secret.
Again, from the report: “As in the broader United States, workers in North Carolina have been experiencing significant long-term wage stagnation over the past 30 years despite producing historic productivity gains for their employers. The American economy has seen a growing wedge between business productivity — basically the amount of goods and services produced by each worker — and workers’ wages. By holding wages flat and using strategies like contingent labor, businesses have ensured that these historic gains have gone to the corporate bottom lines rather than workers’ paychecks. In turn, corporate employers have spent these gains — largely achieved by reducing labor costs — on executive compensation, expensive stock buy-backs, dividends, and income distributions to shareholders, benefitting wealthy investors at the expense of their workers.”
Before launching Triad City Beat, Brian Clarey, Eric Ginsburg and I worked at newspaper whose owner opposed the Affordable Care Act with a barely suppressed rage. While his employees almost to a one derived a measure of small hope from healthcare reform, our publisher warned us that it would be the ruin of the company. Whatever our personal beliefs, he counseled, we needed to protect this most precious asset so that it could continue to support us. The implication was that opposing the Affordable Care Act was a stand for the common good, and not a selfish reflex on his part to hoard his private wealth.
As an employee of a company where I hold a significant ownership stake, I now earn a fraction of what I once did. Yet I can say without reservation that it feels liberating to be able to completely see through the lies of austerity without worrying that my own personal conviction could be wielded as a sword against me.
As an entrepreneur, my conviction has grown only more resolute that we need a higher minimum wage (as a small business, we’re exempt, but I know we’ll pay ourselves more when we can afford it). We need to strengthen the social safety net by expanding Medicaid and other programs, and we need a more progressive system of taxation. While a more robust safety net might mean paying higher payroll taxes on the front end, I know that in the long run it will stimulate demand for goods and services that will translate into more business.
I’m glad that, as a complement to policies designed to strengthen labor unions, the State of Working North Carolina 2015 report also recommends the promotion of co-ops, credit unions and employee stock ownership programs. As entrepreneurs, my colleagues and I consider ourselves to be part of a local craft economy that lifts up the whole rather than suck out maximum profits without heed to our impact on the community. Jorge Maturino, our art director, holds an ownership share in the company, along with me and Ginsburg, and Clarey, our president, of course. And we bank with a credit union.
“These programs promote private property while simultaneously allowing workers to gain power and a greater share of the profits from their productivity,” the report reads. “These efforts, most popular in North Carolina through credit unions but growing in the area of grocery stores, provide workers with the opportunity not only to set their own labor standards and business practices but represent a community wealth-building opportunity.”
This is work that is worth the long hours and sacrifice.