Show Me the Money

Yes, Even Chevy Chase has Lessons for the Workplace

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I’ll never understand how National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation became a holiday classic. First off, to be a classic, it has to be made before I was born, which I realize eliminates a lot of would-be classics. Second, it has Chevy Chase.

I saw this movie in the theater back in 1989. In those days, my friend Ray and I went to see a lot of movies during our Christmas and Spring Breaks (no Fort Lauderdale for me. I was too busy working). I remember coming out of it and saying to each other, that’s the last time we pay the full price for anything starring Chevy Chase. The man who became famous for falling down at the start of every Saturday Night Live in its first season was also the first to leave prematurely when the glitter, glamor and money of Hollywood beckoned. He made a lot of movies in the beginning, and except a couple of good films (Caddyshack and Foul Play spring to mind) most of them were duds.

Perhaps the fact that I saw the movie in the theater is the problem. Most people I know who laud the humor of the movie experienced it on some secondary cable channel one late December night when there was nothing else on TV. Their expectations were much lower than mine. When pressed, they’ll say, oh, I like it, but I’d never pay full price in a movie theater to see it. It’s not that good.

To those few who would have plucked down the price of a ticket, not to mention the cost of overpriced popcorn and soda, all I have to say is that everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it is wrong and misguided. I found Christmas Vacation to be dull and predictable. The only true laughs came from Randy Quaid who played cousin-in-law Eddie.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing the movie, the plot centers around Chevy Chase as the hapless Clark Griswold, determined to have a good old-fashioned Christmas when his extended family comes to town. The comedy (I use the term loosely) includes antics like going out to cut down a Christmas tree then finding they have no saw and stringing the outside of the house with thousands of lights that won’t work. To add some tension, there is also a somewhat real life crises happening. Clark hasn’t received his annual bonus yet, and he needs it to pay for the down payment he put on a new pool.

Since John Hughes wrote this movie, it has to come with a message. All his movies have messages, usually warped and twisted ones (outer beauty is what matters, date rape is okay, etc.) This time, the message is about the importance of family and the joy of Christmas. Of course, being in HR, that’s not the message I got out of it.

And no, the message is not that Dickie’s are inappropriate work attire:



Let’s not dwell on the poor parenting that makes Clark think a pool is what he should spend his bonus on instead of, let’s say, his kids’ college education. Instead, let’s focus on his expectation of a bonus in the first place. He believes he is getting a bonus, not because anyone told him he would, but because he had always gotten one in the past. Then he goes and spends it before he even knows he’s going to receive it. We’re supposed to fret along with Clark about this, when really, all I could think is that he’s an idiot.

We have to keep in mind, however, that Clark’s no different from most of us. Hell, I’ve even made the mistake of counting on a bonus, even if I didn’t spend it before it was in the bank. Now, I’m not talking about earned commissions, money someone receives based on sales using a prescribed formula. I’m talking about true bonuses. Money the company awards based on criteria no one can usually understand, but usually entails executives in a closed room with a dart board.

Companies will flat-out tell you bonuses are not guaranteed. They’ll have it scroll across the bottom of your computer screen, make it part of their logo, tattoo it on their CEO’s forehead. But no matter what, a certain large portion of you will consider it a regularly scheduled part of your income. You’ll work it into your household budgets, pile money onto your credit cards with the expectation that the bonus can be used to repay it. When you receive it, you view it as an entitlement. When you don’t, you complain that something has been taken away. It’s easy to forget that a bonus is just that, an extra.

My organization is generous with its incentives and bonuses. When it does well, it shares its success across the board. But if it doesn’t do well, everyone is out of luck. Back during the Great Recession, no bonuses or incentives were paid for about two years. While no one liked it, it did serve an important function. It reminded everyone that these bonuses weren’t guarantees.

It’s been over six years since that happened. Unfortunately, the lesson learned has been forgotten by some (and never learned by people who were hired later). Bonuses will be good this year. I’m happy for everyone. They worked hard. They deserve it. I just hope they remember that the bonus they get this year is no promise that they’ll get one next year.

If you are getting a bonus, I hope you remember this, too.

Happy Holidays!

NFL Cheerleaders Whipping Up the Fans for Better Pay

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Super Bowl 50 is over. The beer has been drunk, the nachos devoured. The Denver Broncos have had their victory parade and those multi-million dollar commercials can be found on YouTube. After weeks of hype, you can now concentrate on more serious matters.

No, I am not referring to the presidential primaries, the Syrian refugee crisis, the Zika Virus or the lead-poisoned water of Flint, MI. I am talking, of course, about the issue of low NFL Cheerleader pay.

Several articles have been written on the subject lately, which I suspect are all just a way to drive traffic to Web sites by posting photos like these:


Not that the problem isn’t a real one. Many of these cheerleaders only get paid $70 to $100 dollars per game. Often, they have to buy their own uniforms, and they do not get paid for the numerous hours of practice per week.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that I’m all for paying people more. I have no doubt that NFL Cheerleaders are extremely talented and hard working, and deserve to be compensated according. I also don’t think that the NFL is going to miss the few hundred thousands dollars that it would take to compensate cheerleaders properly when they are pulling in $13 billion per year. I just think we need to put this into perspective.

There are about 650 NFL Cheerleaders. Meanwhile, millions of retail, fast-food and restaurant workers are also earning below subsistence wages.

Of course, most of them don’t look as good in knee-high boots.

The NFL is unlikely to raise cheerleader pay substantially. Sure, they’ve settled with some who brought lawsuits against them, and some teams have given raises for PR purposes, but cheerleaders will never earn the six figure salaries of even the most mediocre of NFL players. The reason is simple supply and demand.

I once interviewed a young woman who told me it was her dream to become a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader. She had about as much chance of becoming their quarterback – or getting hired by me, for that matter. She applied for an admin job and could barely type.

For every NFL Cheerleader, there are at least 10 equally qualified women who would gladly take her place. Some would probably even work for free. This hardly creates pressure to increase wages. Do you know why computer coders are paid so well? Because there are so few of them. If there were ten coders for every job available, they wouldn’t be making much money, either.

And while the cheerleading squads generally earn money for their teams, the total income for the entire NFL is about $1 million annually. A lot of money for you and me, but nothing for the juggernaut which is professional football. It basically breaks down to $1,500 per cheerleader. I once worked for a retail operation where people earned only slightly more than cheerleaders, and it earned twice as much per employee.

If cheerleading squads were disbanded next season, only those guys at the games who need something to ogle between downs through fogged up binoculars would care. Most of us would just shrug and keep watching. Hell, if the fact that the guys playing the game are ending up with brain damage because of too many skull crushing impacts doesn’t make us stop watching, why would we care if a few scantily clad women are suddenly gone from the sidelines?

Don’t believe me? I remember back in the 80’s when the Chicago Bears disbanded their cheerleading squad, the Honeybears. Their owner, Virginia Halas McCasky, thought they had no place in the blood and guts world of professional football and got rid of them. The Bears still continued to play, draw fans, earn a profit and sometimes even win a game. Sure, there are those who blame the so-called Honeybear Curse for the Monsters of the Midway not winning a Super Bowl ever since, but that has had more to do with poor management, misguided coaching, mediocre players and bad luck than with some leggy blonde high kicking in short-shorts.

So while NFL Cheerleaders deserve more money for the work they do, they probably aren’t going to get it (or at least not much more than a slight raise so that the NFL gets the media off its backs). Not for a job in which has little value and in which workers can be so easily replaced. But don’t worry about them. Most cheerlead part-time. They have full-time jobs or are going to school. The exposure they get can lead to modeling contracts and other sidelines that will earn them more money, or, for the 1950’s traditionalists, land them a wealthy husband.

And if they truly want to earn a good living and be paid well for the work they do, they’d be better off dropping those pom-poms and picking up a laptop.

What Salaried Really Means

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I was talking to a person who did graphic design for an architecture firm. She often has to produce work on short deadlines, often working late hours and coming in early.

I wish I was salaried, she told me.

I assumed, like most people, when she said salaried, she meant exempt.

Why? I asked, you’d lose your overtime. You wouldn’t get paid for all those extra hours you work.

Yes, but I’d be salaried.

Like most people, she equated exempt with being a professional. Getting paid for the work performed, rather than the hours worked. To her, it’s a sign of status, like a corner office or a vice president title. And like those things, she was willing to sacrifice pay to get it.

Now the Department of Labor is proposing changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which will make it harder for you to be classified as exempt. Basically, one of the requirements is that you earn a salary of$23,660 annually. They proposing to at least double this (IT positions, for all you techies out there, follow a different set of rules).

This rule change means a lot of people who are currently exempt will either have to receive pay raises or be reclassified and get overtime. NPR featured just such a person. A bank branch manager getting paid $30,000 a year was told when he was hired that his was not a 9 to 5 job. He would always be on call. As a result, he often works 60 hours per week. Because he’s exempt, he doesn’t make a dime more for it.

I worked this out. At 60 hours per week, he earns the equivalent of just over $9.50 per hour. Some bank tellers earn more than this, and don’t have near the responsibility. For all practical purposes, he is probably earning less than many of the loan officers and personal bankers he supervises.

Low paying industries have been doing this for years. They give someone the title of manager, work the hell out of them, and get to keep all the additional results of that labor as profit. In addition, many of these people aren’t even true managers. Due to their companies’ constant budget cuts, they are short-staffed, so they make up the difference. Most of their time isn’t spent hiring or developing staff. It’s spent working behind the coffee counter or stocking shelves, with less than half of it

Of course, some of these employers complain that if the law changes, they won’t be able to make money, forcing them to cut jobs. They may even have to shut their doors. Good. As I’ve said before, if your business model depends on taking advantage of your workers, you have a poor business model and deserve to go out of business.

Other employers are naturally looking for ways around the law before it even goes into effect. Most will merely move the employees at issue to hourly, but pay them less so that they’ll have to work overtime to maintain their current rate of pay. Then they’ll turn around and say it’s not their greed, but big bad government’s fault.

Nice, huh?

It’s too bad that any of these rules are even necessary. The workplace would be so much better if employers didn’t see employees as a resource, like computers or shelf space, but rather as a stake holder, just like their customers and shareholders, people invested in the success of the organization who employers need to invest in for their success.

Until that time comes, the Department of Labor will continue to enforce the FLSA, and employers will continue to find ways to work around it, or flaunt it all together.

And as long as she’s salaried, that graphic designer and millions like her will be thankful for the privilege of being considered a “professional”.

Jane You Ignorant Slut: Point-Counterpoint and the Minimum Wage

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SHRM Magazine, the trade publication put out by the Society of Human Resource Management, added a new feature in September: A point-counterpoint in which two individuals sound off on a particular issue, giving opposite sides of the argument. The first topic: Whether or Not to Raise the Federal Minimum Wage. You can read the full text here.

Not a bad idea unless one of those people is James Shrek (oops – I meant Sherk) of the Heritage Foundation – that bastion of the fallacies of uninhibited free trade and trickle down economics. If it had its way, there wouldn’t be a minimum wage at all. Not that the pro-minimum wage author, with the Economic Policy Institute, is unbiased, but at least his arguments are based on the realities of the workplace.

I take several issues with the argument opposing the minimum wage – too many to detail here. As I’ve said before, I have this crazy belief that anyone who works hard all day should be able to earn enough to put a roof over his or her head and food on the table. All workers, no matter what the job, deserve a certain level of respect, and pay is one indication of this respect. Raising the minimum wage is a moral and ethical issue, not just an economic one.

But from a human resource standpoint, one argument particularly got to me. In his piece, Sherk states that minimum wage workers are unskilled and therefore, “…cannot yet produce $10.00 an hour for prospective employers.” This shows a complete lack of understanding of how compensation works. He implies that employers determine pay by looking at how much that employee earns for the organization. This is not only untrue, but impractical. It is almost impossible to do such a cost-benefit analysis on most jobs. Take a registered nurse, for example. An RN’s job is to care for patients, whatever that might entail. While they may record services for billing purposes, they aren’t paid according to these billings. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they were (and we wouldn’t want to be under their care).

This method may work, and is often used, for certain sales positions. Even then, however, it’s not perfect. Sales people generally have a whole group of service, technical and administrative people in support of them whose contributions can’t be measured so easily. It can also be difficult to determine how much of their success or failure depends on their own efforts, and how much could be attributed to other factors such as timing and luck.

Sherk only has to look at one of his own examples, the high paid techies at Google, to see the error in his statement. According to him, the average Google employee makes $140,000 per year. After benefits, that’s probably closer to $180,000 per year. Are all those people producing enough to warrant that kind of money? No, and I’m sure some aren’t even expected to. A tech firm survives on innovation, and that takes investment into R&D. I’m sure many Google employees are working on systems and applications that haven’t made the organization a dime, and maybe never will. But it’s what the company must do to stay ahead of the competition.

Sherk ignores this. Instead, he points to McDonald’s workers to argue his case against paying a higher wage. He claims they aren’t worth more $10.00 per hour, but by his methodology, the are. Let’s say a family of four comes into a McDonald’s and orders meals for each person. The cost comes to about $30.00. Four people work to put the meals together – one to run the register and pour the sodas, one to prepare the fries and two to make the sandwiches. The order is ready in less than five minutes. During this time, each $10.00 an hour worker earned 83 cents, for a total of $5.81. Let’s add another 30% for other benefits (which I’m sure most don’t get) and you have about $7.50. Last I checked, $7.50 was less than $30.00. Even accounting for overhead (McDonald’s profit margins are 19.31% including those labor costs) the McDonald’s workers are producing more than that $10.00 per hour for their employer. McDonald’s, and most low-wage employers, are getting much more out of these workers than they are putting into them.

So if this is not how compensation is determined, how does it work? Why are Google engineers valued more highly than McDonald’s cashiers?

It’s simple supply and demand. Google is in competition with neighboring tech firms for skilled, experienced, well-educated and experienced talent that is hard to find. Low supply, high demand equals higher prices (wages). McDonald’s is hiring low skilled, lower educated, entry-level workers, of which there are many. High supply, low demand = lower prices. Google doesn’t pay these people high salaries because that is what their work is worth. It pays them that much because that is how much it costs to attract and keep them from going to a competitor.

I was once charged with hiring structural civil engineers right out of college. Despite having a great work environment and benefits, every one we offered a job to went to another employer because the other employer had offered a higher salary. It didn’t matter that all the salary surveys, all the analysis, all the determination of what we could bill for these engineers said we were offering a competitive wage. The reality was we had to start offering more or we wouldn’t have anyone to do the work that was coming through the door. Sure, there is a breaking point in which it would be better to turn down the work than pay employees more, but we were nowhere near that point.

The reason the owners and stockholders don’t want to pay more to low wage workers has nothing to do with how much they are worth, but how much profit they can squeeze from them. They don’t pay more for hamburger than they need to, why should it be any different with workers? These misguided employers believe their reason for existence is to maximize profit. They do not see themselves as having any obligation to their workers, or see their workers as stakeholders, equal with the investment bankers on Wall Street. That’s why we need a minimum wage in the first place. And even if the Heritage Foundation was right, those employers and their investors wouldn’t lose a cent. They’d just raise their prices and pass the cost on to consumers. Fine with me. I’d gladly pay an extra quarter for a meal if I knew it meant the person on the other side of the counter could pay to by a meal that didn’t come out of a cardboard box.

Sherk doesn’t get the simple basics of compensation, but why should he? He works for a non-profit funded by private donors to promote a particular political viewpoint, not to create any product or produce any service of real value. I’m sure the Heritage Foundation never determined whether he is producing enough to bring an equivalent amount of donations in. I do know one thing, though, whatever he is being paid, it’s way too much.

Why Pay Interns?

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A manager called me up one day, asking if he could hire an intern for his growing department.

How much are you looking to pay? I asked.

I don’t have room in my budget for pay. I was hoping it could be an unpaid internship.

What would the intern be doing? I asked.

Oh, filing, setting up appointments, working reception, making sure coffee is filled.

I asked a series of questions. Would the person be having any meaningful interactions with clients? Would they being doing any financial analysis? Will you be providing the person with any industry specific training?

The answer to all my questions was no.

Then you can’t have an unpaid intern. A summer employee who is paid under our current structure, that I can help you with.

The manager was incredulous. Other places do it, he said.

I gave my standard reply when someone tells me this. Other places are wrong.

The Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865. A century and a half later, slavery continues in the form of unpaid interns.

College students and recent graduates are hired by the tens of thousands every summer to work as interns. Some have meaningful assignments, but many are brought on to take care of the most mundane tasks: fetching lunches, delivering packages, filing, entering data. The Department of Labor has made it clear that unpaid internships need to be for the benefit of the intern, and not the employer. It must include work related to the inern’s future career and have some educational component. The concept is that if the student receives training and experience in lieu of pay. Many, like the manager I denied, either ignore these regulations, don’t understand them or don’t care. Until recently, employers are rarely called on this violation of the law.

Since a Federal judge in Manhattan ruled that unpaid interns working on the movie Black Swan were essentially employees and should have been paid, I’ve read and heard several commentators lament the end of internship programs. The reasoning is that these employers will determine that interns just aren’t worth the hassle of potential lawsuits, and that paying them some small wage will somehow send their multi-million dollar corporations reeling into bankruptcy.

Black Swan grossed over $300 million. I’m sure they could have afforded a couple of interns a nominal wage. The cost would have probably been less than their cattering budget.

Still, I agree that many of these companies will drop their internship programs in order to avoid lawsuits. They’ll have to find someone else to beratewhen the coffee pot is empty?

Unpaid internships have thrived because they are in industries considered glamorous – fashion, film, television, publishing. Students are clamoring to get their foot in the door in these industries, which has made it all to easy for the companies to say, “Work for us for free. We’ll treat you like dirt, give you all the crappy jobs. In the end, you’ll get connections and be able to put our name on your resume. The world will be your oyster.”

One concern is that the end of these unpaid internships will mean that these students and new grads won’t be able to make the connections they need to get paying jobs. However, according to a recent study of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, unpaid interns faired only slightly better in obtaining regular employment than those students who did not do internships.

Contrast this with paid internships. Paid internships tend to be in more technical, less glamorous industries, such as IT, engineering and accounting. The same study showed that these internships were much more likely to result in a regular job. I used to hire civil engineering interns. We used them throughout the construction season to supplement our survey crews, monitor construction projects and assist with traffic studies. Some of the work was menial, like holding a rod in the middle of a field for a Survey Crew Chief, or counting cars as they went through an intersection. Some of it was more substantial. All of it provided them real life work experience, and we used these interns (we actually called them Co-op positions, since we and the student both gained from the relationship) as a pool for hires after they graduated.

The difference between the companies like ours that pay interns, and the ones that don’t is that the ones that don’t think they are so cool that interns would actually pay them for the opportunity. We were an engineering firm. We knew we weren’t cool.

Those who exalt the merits of unpaid internships remind me of the apologists for slavery who say that the blacks were better off under slavery than after they were freed.

That’s debatable. Nevertheless, they were still slaves.

I’m not saying that interns are the same as the black slaves two hundred years ago. After all, they have a choice. They weren’t kidnapped and chained in the hulls of cargo ships and bought and sold and traded. They can always leave, and if they do, no one is going to hunt them down like dogs as they try to escape to freedom across the Mason-Dixon Line.

Still, just as slavery is wrong, regardless of the circumstances, not compensating your workers is wrong. It needs to change. Either these employers need to create a truly educational internship program, start paying interns or end their programs all together.

Will this mean a change for both interns and the employers who enlist them? Of course. But the marketplace will adapt. It may even turn out to be advantageous for some students. After all, only those interns who have some other means of support (i.e. well-off parents) can afford to work without pay. Those students who already have bills to pay and a mountain of student debt don’t have the option of working for free, no matter what opportunity it provides.

In 2012, the movie Lincoln chronicled the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

I wonder if in making the film, they used any unpaid interns.

Salaries – An Open Book

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Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. The Act made it illegal to pay people differently based on gender if they are doing substantially equivalent work. For instance, a female maid and a male janitor both working to clean an office building would have to earn the same pay.

When the legislation was enacted back in 1963, women earned 59 cents per every one dollar a man earned for the same job. The Equal Pay Act is credited for helping close this gap, but the gap still exists. Today, women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same job.

The reasons for what is commonly called the pay gap run the spectrum. On one hand, there are those who believe that a bunch of white guys are sitting in a back room complete with a glass ceiling, smoking big fat cigars and colluding to keep women down by suppressing their wages. On the other hand, there are those who say that the pay gap is a myth, that it is based on the fact that men outperform women, or that women’s lower pay is simply due to the fact that they make different career choices than men (to work for a non-profit, or to stay at home to care for children).

Both of these theories are devised by people who want the causes of problems to tidily fit into their narrow world view. If there is some cigar-smoking mysoginists’ cabal, I want to know why I wasn’t asked to join. And I’ve known too many managers to make stupid comments to believe the pay gap is a myth. One once told me that we should lowball a job offer to a woman because the husband made good money as an attorney, and so she would probably take it.

As always, the true reasons for the pay gap are as complex and varied as the organizations in which it occurs. THe solution, however, is very simple: Require that everyone in an organization knows everyone else’s salary.

In most private, non-union employers, talking about pay is taboo. I’ve even had managers ask if we could have a policy forbidding it (We can’t. The National Labor Relations Act states that employers can’t keep employees from discussing work conditions, and pay is a work condition). And so no employee, and few in management, has a full picture of employee compensation. Without this knowledge, how can employees know if they are being paid fairly, and how can managers make fair pay decisions?

Look at what this same type of openness has done for used car buying. I remember purchasing my first car back in the early nineties. Back then, it was difficult, if not impossible, to find information regarding the true cost of the car, and almost no way to tell whether the car had been in an accident. Car dealers tightly controlled this information so they had the upper hand in any negotiation. Today, thanks to any number of Web sites, information on used vehicles is readily available to the buyer. Now, when I sit down to negotiate the price of a car, I’m doing so from a position of strength.

This same logic can work for pay. Let’s say Jane and Joe are both doing the same job for the same period of time. Jane looks at the published salary list and sees that Joe is earning 10 percent more than she is. She can then go to her manager and ask why. The manager is now in the position of explaining the discrepancy on the basis of sound business reasons, or remedying it. If the manager doesn’t, Jane can file suit against her company. Better yet, she can quit and go to work for someone who will pay her fairly. And if Jane is uncomfortable asking her manager about her pay? Well, then she has no one to blame but herself for the inequity. At best, her manager thinks about her pay once a year at raise time. At worst, her manager doesn’t think about it at all. She needs to speak up if she wants to see changes.

Employers have two reasons not to make pay information public. First, they keep it private for the same reason the car salesmen would keep car price information from you if they could. Their goal is to pay employees as little as possible while still getting the same amount of productivity. It would be harder to underpay someone if that person knew that his/her coworkers were earning a higher wage. In most cases, overall wages would rise.

Second, most employers don’t want to explain to employees why they are paid a certain wage because they have pay practices that are arbitrary. They base pay decisions on unreliable market data and subjective performance ratings. They don’t conduct the internal analysis necessary to determine whether pay is equitable among their own employees. Fixing these systems is hard work and requires constant maintenance. I know. I’ve done it. I’m still doing it. Why go to all the effort if they can simply pick a random number out of thin air?

I consider my pay a personal matter. No one knows what I earn except for my wife. It comes from that Midwestern work ethic. The job is what’s important and talking about money is somehow vulgar. I know that many others feel the same way. One of the main reasons we don’t publish employee pay at my current organization is out of respect for employees’ privacy.

But I am not talking about bragging about salary at parties, or even bringing it up in the company break room. Under this system, employees wouldn’t have to say a thing. The company would do all the disclosing.

Even though we do not have this system at my current workplace, I challenge managers to think as though we did. When determining pay increases or salary offers, I often ask, if an employee came to you to ask why he/she wasn’t making as much as someone else, could you explain it? If you can’t, it’s the wrong decision.

The one obstacle in opening up salary information is that many managers hate conflict. Rather than have uncomfortable discussions about pay, they would simply pay all similarly positioned employees the same regardless of performance. Productivity and morale could suffer if high performers see others being paid the same as them for poorer performance. Managers need to be willing to have those tough conversations about compensation. After all, that’s why they earn the big bucks.

May Day! May Day!

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On May 4, 1886, workers in Chicago gathered in Haymarket Square to protest for an 8 hour workday. Police came to break up the rally. A bomb was thrown at the police, and the police responded with gunfire. Seven police officers and four protesters were killed. Scores of others were wounded.

International Workers Day was born.

It would take the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to make the 8 hour workday the norm throughout the country.

Recently, retail and food service workers in Chicago and New York went on one day strikes to protest low wages. For these workers, earnings are generally near minimum wage, around seven to eight dollars an hour. They say they need at least fifteen dollars an hour to make ends meet.

Good for them. I hope they succeed, but they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Call me a socialist, but I believe anyone willing to work hard at a job should have the opportunity to put a roof over his or her head, put food on the table, pay for other necessities and maybe even set a little aside for a rainy day. Those “Job Creators” who say they can’t afford to pay more to their employees are either greedy liars, or have a poor business model. Any employer who can’t succeed and still provide a living wage to employees deserves to go out of business.

Still, I have little hope anything will change.

The problem with trying to bring up the wages of these workers comes down to simple supply and demand. These jobs are generally unskilled, and despite the improving economy, a lot of people are still looking for jobs. The supply of employees is high, the demand low, so wages remain stagnant. The owner of a fast food franchise could lose all his employees tomorrow, and be up and running again in a couple of weeks with all new staff. He might even be able to pay the new employees lower wages.

A factory worker for a small manufacturing company I once worked for went to the owner and said he needed a raise. The owner asked him why. He went on to list his expenses – car payment, mortgage, etc. The owner told him no. If he had said how the owner would miss his skills and experience if he had to leave for a higher paying position, and the owner agreed, the answer may have been different.

But the worker didn’t see it this way, instead, he followed Karl Marx’s adage, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

The strikers in Chicago and New York appear to agree with him. They are demanding more money because they need more money, not because they are necessarily worth more money on the open market.

I never said I believed everyone should earn a living wage, only that they deserve the opportunity.

I guess I’m not a socialist after all.

This isn’t necessarily their fault. In some cases, they have been failed by the system. They are the product of poor schools and low expectations that have left them with little hope of getting more than a low skilled job. Or they are over educated and underemployed, told that they should get a college degree, but found that degree in Sociology or Medieval Literature had little value to employers.

To them, I’d say that they should not look to the system that failed them to help them now. Instead they should rely on their own talents. Look for ways to show their value to their employers. Take on extra responsibilities, learn new skills, be adaptable, be a team player. And if their current bosses don’t recognize this value with cash, find some other employer who will.

My first full-time job had lots of responsibility and little pay. I took that opportunity and made the most of it. I learned as much as I could about the industry. I took on whatever came my way. When I said I was taking a job with a competitor, they gave me a raise to retain me. I received a promotion. And when I started to stagnate in my position, and there were no more opportunities to grow, I moved on to another employer. I did this with subsequent jobs. Today, I am by no means wealthy, but I am able to support a family. There have been sacrifices. I’ve had to take jobs that were far less than ideal. I have been underpaid, overworked and under appreciated. But you do what you have to do.

And for those employers who take advantage of their high performers instead of rewarding them. Who see employees as an expense, keeping wages low for no other reason than to increase the bottom-line, remember what Henry Ford said, “A business that makes nothing but money is poor business.”