Sitting on mountains of cash, U.S. corporations do too little to reduce income inequality

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By Larry Bostian, Vice President, Development

The question of income and asset inequality has certainly moved center stage. Demands for an increase in the minimum wage are being met by howls of protest, and complaints about skyrocketing executive compensation, alas, are being met with apparent indifference in corporate boardrooms. So the struggle for justice continues, and NCL is right in there, as we have been since 1899.

There’s another player in this drama, though, that doesn’t get the same attention, even though it may have an even greater impact. That’s the fact that U.S. corporations are sitting on top of mountains of cash, but they’re not investing in creating new jobs. With the big increases in stock value — the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained more than 28% in 2013! — a reasonable person might think, why, let’s use some of this new wealth to help out all those unemployed Americans, our fellow citizens!

What are many corporations doing instead? They’re buying back their own stock, which increases the value of the shares still available to be traded. Great, if you’re a shareholder. If you’re one of the millions who lost their jobs in the great recession and whose unemployment benefits have just run out, not so good.

What can we do about it? If you are a shareholder, agitate! Let the company know you want it to invest in jobs, in community development, in public health. Tell the executive leadership to get off the sidelines. If you’re a public employee, contact your retirement system managers and tell them you don’t want them investing in companies that are basically on strike against unemployed and underpaid U.S. workers.

A good source for additional information is the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility.

A DC resident’s letter to Mayor Gray about the LRAA

The Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA) was vetoed by DC Mayor Vincent Gray and then the veto was sustained by the DC City Council earlier this month. This was a defeat for DC’s low wage workers and a missed opportunity for Washington to set an example for the rest of the country that workers deserve a living wage. This is a compelling letter from Daniel Solomon, a DC resident, to the Mayor urging him to sign the LRAA in the days leading up to his decision.

Dear Mayor Gray,

I have been following the progress of the Large Retailer Accountability Act since it first attracted public attention last year.  I find the arguments of its proponents compelling and the arguments of its opponents weak at best.  I urge you to act on your best instincts and sign the bill.

My grandfather, N. M. Cohen, founded Giant Food in Washington, DC in 1936.  From the beginning, he regarded his workers as his most important asset.  He would say, “This company is built on three things: people, people, people.” He paid his people well.  He dealt fairly with the union that represented them, even ordering coffee for strikers in the rare instance when his workers went on strike in winter.  He built Giant on the shoulders of his workers, not on their backs.  He made a lot of money as a high-road employer.  He plowed that money back into the community in a variety of ways, not the least of which is through the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, which continues to give back to the District of Columbia.

N. M. would be appalled to watch WalMart’s hijinks.  Threatening to leave D.C. or cut back on its planned investments here if we don’t keep their workers’ wages down.  Using the needs of our poorest communities as leverage, rather than as a reason to build new stores and pay workers living wages.  Refusing to testify publicly on the Large Retailer Accountability Act, but seeking to kill the legislation  behind the scenes through highly-paid lobbyists and using other businesses and business associations as its surrogates.  Pursuing a low road to growth rather than the high road pursued by Giant Food and such other companies as Costco and Trader Joe’s and Quick Chek.

Your campaign theme of One City meant a great deal to me, both as a member of the Giant family and as a prosperous resident on the prosperous side of town.  I believe DC will be One City and a thriving city only when the least fortunate residents have good jobs, excellent schools and the opportunities now available almost exclusively to those West of the River.  Good jobs are not retail jobs at or near minimum wages.  Those jobs will only perpetuate poverty.  Of course, not every retailer can afford to provide living wage jobs.  Those that can should.  Surely big box retailers whose parent companies earn $1 billion or more a year can afford far more than many of them choose to provide.

You and some of the Council opponents of LRAA say that the residents of Ward 7 want the jobs WalMart may bring, no matter what they pay.  Elissa Silverman of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has found otherwise.  Here is a link to her article:

http://www.dcfpi.org/one-thousand-dc-residents-have-signed-on-for-a-living-wage-and-counting

Your Administration has done much to raise the prospects and hopes of those East of the River.  I urge you to harness the wealth of the large retailers who want to do business here to provide the next boost.

Please sign the LRAA.

Sincerely,
Daniel Solomon

Let’s celebrate this Labor Day by fighting for the country’s low-wage workers

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

With Labor Day 2013 upon us, we have the opportunity to stand with low-income workers in the District of Columbia (DC) and by extension, all of the working poor. NCL has taken part in two recent campaigns in DC in an effort to lift up those who are often exploited and toil for unconscionably low wages.

The first campaign supports the efforts of Good Jobs Nation. NCL joined with this worker organization to help publicize the low wages federal contractors are permitted to pay those who serve food in the museums and tourist locales around the city. Twice in the past month our staff and our six summer interns hopped the DC Metro down to the National Mall to support walk-outs and rallies by hundreds of minimum wage employees. We’ve helped to publicize the fact that contractors who run fast food outlets like Subway and McDonalds, and who secure lucrative contracts with the federal government to provide meals at places like the Air and Space Museum and Union Station in Washington DC, often pay less than the DC minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, and sometimes even less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

We think tourists and taxpayers would be unhappy to learn that many of these federal contractors are not playing by the rules and are engaging in wage theft, which includes not paying the requisite time and a half for overtime or paying less than the required DC or federal minimum wage. All the while, these contractors are reaping millions in profits from tourists who have little choice but to eat in these establishments when they visit DC’s many wonderful sites. We, Good Jobs Nation, and many other groups are calling on President Obama to sign an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay a living wage to all workers. We urge everyone to go to the Good Jobs Nation website and sign the letter to the President. We’re committed to supporting these workers in their efforts to earn not only the minimum wage but the DC living wage – which has been evaluated to be $12.50 an hour. If workers received a living wage they would make $26,000 annually working a 40-hour work-week.

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A day of celebration and reflection at the National Mall

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

Yesterday, Washington celebrated the 50th Anniversary of one of the world’s greatest events for the cause of civil rights. There were Americans from all states of the union at the March, and many great speeches.

I joined the ceremonies in the morning by participating with citizens and elected officials working for DC Statehood at the DC WWII Memorial, then walked to the Lincoln Monument with the crowd to hear the speeches.  I also took a lot of pictures.MOW MLK sign

Congressman John Lewis, who was a King confidant and who was himself arrested many times, beaten and bloodied, and who is now a member of Congress from Georgia, spoke, as did Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, Arline Holt Baker of the AFLCIO, Mary Kay Henry, head of SEIU, Randy Weingarten, head of AFT, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who drew a rousing round of applause. Pelosi told the crowd she was at the march 50 years ago and heard MLK Jr. speak. She observed that then there were 4 Black members of Congress back then and a Catholic in the White House; today there are 43  Black members of Congress and an African American in the White House. The Black Caucus members “are the conscience of the caucus” Pelosi said. And I was personally so pleased that she also said we need “not just a minimum wage but a livable wage.” That’s what we are fighting for right now in DC!

MOW huddleWe ought to have been celebrating the gains made in the last 50 years and there have been many. The overwhelming sense I had from the crowd, however, which was both heavily African America and union, is that while many important gains have been achieved since Martin Luther King made his “I Have A Dream Speech”, just when you think things are going well, something monumental sets you back. The theme for this march was why the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin, the FL teenager shot while he walked back from a convenience store carrying nothing more than a bag with Skittles, ever happened? Are “Stand Your Ground” laws a chance for racists to carry out vigilante justice and get away with it? And how different is Trayvon Martin from Emmett Till?

Nevertheless, it was a great day in Washington, with excellent speeches and an opportunity to reflect on King’s Dream – with the Trayvon Martin case, immigration reform stalled, and 15 million workers making minimum wage and having to work 2-3 jobs to get by, though, today was a reminder of how much more we need to do to get our house in order.

Fast food workers plan a day of protest on August 29

A coalition of national labor unions and community groups announced a national fast-food worker walk-out scheduled for August 29.  This announcement follows a summer of protest, during which workers from across the country have protested against low-wages and unfair working conditions. Striking fast-food workers have cried foul over unpaid overtime, wage theft, and a lack of upward mobility. Nationally, these workers earn a median pay of $8.94/hr.

The planned walk-out is a precursor to Labor Day, a day our nation pauses to recognize the economic and social contributions of America’s workforce.  And while some workers are doing exceptionally well, median pay for chief executives at the nation’s top corporations jumped 16 percent last year, low wage workers – the bottom 20 percent of the workforce – have seen their incomes fall 5 percent in the last seven years.

Low-wage workers are demanding a $15 minimum wage. Many pro-business advocates have made claims that such an increase would harm consumers and cause prices to skyrocket. In fact, Rep. Markwayne Mullen (R-OK) stated at a town hall meeting earlier this month that a $10 minimum wage would increase the price of a hamburger 438 percent. Such a statement is intended to startle consumers and turn the public against the idea of increased wages. A close examination of the claim, however, proves it to be false. In Australia, where the minimum wage is $16.88/hr., a Big Mac costs $4.94. Australia’s minimum wage is more than double America’s measly $7.25/ hr., and yet a Big Mac is only 74 cents more.

Social media outrage has fueled a renewed invigoration to increase wages and the mainstream media is paying attention. Earlier this week, a Seattle campaign announced their push for a city-wide $15/hr. minimum wage. As public sentiment turns against corporate business greed, the reality of higher wages – and perhaps living wages – for fast-food workers inches towards a reality.

On August 29, the nation will be tuned in and alert to the plight of America’s low-wage worker.

The time to raise the minimum wage is now

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

Every day we see news reports of low-wage workers going on strike for better working conditions. What we really don’t understand or are not told in those 30 to 45 second news spots is the reality facing theses workers. When low-wage workers take the extraordinary step to go on strike they not only forfeit that day’s pay but they put themselves in their employer’s crosshairs. While the law states that retaliating against an employee who exercises their right to assemble, protest and go on strike is illegal, most employers who engage in retaliation; i.e. reducing the worker’s hours, changing the employee’s shifts, dropping their benefits or firing the employee; are never held accountable.

These workers have taken this enormous risk because life as they know it, simply can not continue. With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a single mother that works full time and has one child, lives in poverty at $15,080 (before taxes) a year. This qualifies them for food stamps because without it, they would have little left after paying rent, utilities, transportation, and health care. Even McDonald’s convoluted monthly budget planning guide assumes that workers have two jobs simultaneously and are working both nearly full-time. What’s laughable is that McDonald’s assumes that rent is $600, health care is $20 a month and that is costs nothing to feed and clothe oneself. Through their budget planning guide, they basically admit that workers can not survive on one full-time job that pays the minimum wage.

So why not pay workers more? Low-wage employers, including McDonald’s and Walmart, made billions of dollars in profits in the past few years, yet instead of sharing the wealth with their employees, they pay their top executives on average $9.4 million per year – that’s over $4,517 an hour. Why not shift some of that to the low-wage employees?

American voters, consumers and small business owners want change. Seventy-three percent of likely 2012 general election voters support raising the minimum wage to $10 per hour – including 50% of Republicans and 74% of independents. Close to nine in ten consumers (87%) strongly agree or agree that the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour should be increased. Even a majority of small business owners (67%) support raising the minimum wage. With an exceptionally small raise to $9 an hour, $3,500 would be added to the annual income of full-time low-wage workers and can be used for a year’s worth of groceries or utilities. If raised to $10.10 an hour, as those in both houses of Congress and worker advocates are calling for, then 30.3 million workers would get a raise. It’s time for a real change – we need to raise the minimum wage!

STRIKE: Workers protest wage theft at the Reagan Building

By Michell K. McIntyre, Outreach Director, Labor and Worker Rights

On Tuesday July 2, low-wage workers employed at the largest U.S. federal office building, Washington D.C.’s Ronald Reagan Building, went on strike. They were not striking for better health benefits (most don’t receive any health benefits), they were not striking for higher wages, and they were not striking for pensions (most will never see a pension). They went on strike to standup against their employers after being victims of wage theft – they have not been paid legally.

These low-wage workers are employees of federal contractors operating on federal land – the Reagan Building is owned by the federal government and paid for by our tax dollars. However the federal contractors are NOT following the law. Some of these workers have not been paid the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) much less than the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, while others have not been paid the overtime they’ve earned after 40 hours of work a week. Most fear retaliation if they dare to speak up. In many cases, these workers continue to work while being victimized by their bosses because they’re struggling to survive paycheck to paycheck.

Good Jobs Nation, the group responsible for organizing the protest, is made up of workers, community members, and clergy. They have partnered with worker groups and unions to stand with and support disenfranchised workers and raise awareness of the plight of low-wage workers. Today’s protests included speeches by D.C. City Council Members Tommy Wells and Kenyan McDuffie, clergy, and, most importantly, the workers who have been suffering from wage theft. The D.C. City Council recently passed a law allowing workers to not only receive their back wages, but also receive triple the amount of damages.

This is a problem with a simple solution. Since the employers are federal contractors leasing space from the federal government, the federal government needs to add a lease provision that makes all contractors adhere to all the labor laws in their jurisdiction, ensure routine labor enforcement, and have concrete consequences for breaking the law.

For more information on Good Jobs Nation please check out their website and sign the petition asking that President Obama to make sure that federal contractors pay living wages and respect worker rights to join together and have a voice on the job.