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.”