When Thomas Jefferson wrote about the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal,” but excluded women, we corrected his mistake. When he wrote that power is derived from the consent of the governed, but left out nonwhite citizens, we corrected his mistake. And when the Founding Fathers allowed Americans to buy and sell their fellow humans as property — America’s original sin — we corrected this injustice.
Or did we? More than 150 years after we ended slavery, we continue to exploit human labor in a misguided attempt to maximize profits for the aristocrats and oligarchs.
As upsetting and controversial as it can be around here when we see the Confederate battle flag still being flown by those who actually remember the fight to defend slavery with shameless enthusiasm, the American south is not the only place this symbol of racism and slavery still appears. In fact, this is a photo from a graveyard just outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
It is one of the less well known aspects of American history that more than a 1000 southern slave owners, at the end of the Civil War, actually moved to Brazil, the last country in the western world where slavery was still legal, to continue what they believed to be the only way that they knew how to live.
The descendants of those recalcitrant southerners still have Confederate celebrations today, in Brazil. Yes, it is weird, but racism is still a serious problem in Brazil, just as it still is in much of the United States. It would be easy to cast these people as being just really evil and very stupid but my fear is that there is something else at work here.
My patriarchal family ran a slave plantation in Kentucky. The Civil War plunged my family into poverty after the slaves were freed and the assets of the plantation were plundered. They continued to try to make a living on the farmland for a hundred years before my descendants largely turned to other professions to escape poverty.
I spent many Sunday afternoons in the old plantation house where my aunt and uncle lived and it was not rare for the adults in my family to drift into conversation about the good ole days, repeating the fables they had heard about our family when they were prosperous and happy, convincing themselves that slavery was not really all that bad.
While a hundred years after the Civil War had not delivered my hillbilly relatives to even the threshold of any racial sensitivity, they still were not the worst human beings in the world. Morally blind to reality, to be sure, but generally speaking, they were not criminals, they were honest, hardworking, people who had simply bought into the cultural assumptions of their surrounding society.
It was broadly believed, in the 19th century south, that the whole world depended upon the agricultural products of the American south but that the heat and humidity of the region was too much for white laborers to bear and that the black race was uniquely suited for this labor. Therefore, they argued, slavery was crucial to the maintenance of the economy, and in fact, the cotton mills and dinner tables of the world were equally at stake.
Sure, they were racists, but they also assumed that things were the way they were because the world couldn’t go on in any other way. At least a part of what they lacked was the imagination to conceive of the world with a labor supply arrangement that did not include slavery.
Even now, in our own area, it is difficult to get a new roof put on by anyone other than Spanish speaking, probably undocumented labor. It is rare to find someone who works in a nail salon who is not Vietnamese and probably not legal citizens.
I love the internet meme that says, “I keep waiting for someone to tell me, ‘Yeah, I was a fruit picker until those illegal immigrants arrived.’” Whenever our borders become sufficiently impenetrable to keep undocumented workers out, strawberries rot in the fields, apples, oranges, and peaches fall to the ground and rot, and the prices of everything from chickens to lawn services goes up because not many American citizens are willing to do those jobs for the salaries they can earn.
But at a more common level, as we emerge from the unemployment that was caused by the pandemic, many employers are finding it difficult to fill many low waged jobs.
Employers who are paying $15/hour or more, have no difficulty finding people to hire but those employers whose business model is based on paying the minimum wage of $7.25/hour which has not been raised since 2009, they're struggling. $7.25 wasn’t a living wage 12 years ago and it has only become increasingly unsufferable since then.
But the industry that is having the most difficulty in getting back in full operation is the food service industry where the minimum wage for tipped workers is still just $2.13 an hour, an absurdly low figure that has not been raised for 20 years.
Now, some of these tipped workers actually do make a substantial amount of money in tips, but certainly not all of them. And restaurant owners schedule their servers to come in and stay late to do cleaning, setup, and prep work when they are not serving the customers who tip them. So, restaurant owners make these people work for $2.13 an hour to do work that is necessary to running a restaurant but not work that involves waiting on tables.
Now, I have a good friend who owns a restaurant who has gotten very angry with me for my sermons and articles advocating for a $15 minimum wage. She insists, “It would run me out of business.” And, I can tell you as a matter of my own family history, when the institution of slavery became illegal, you couldn’t make a living on a farm if you kept trying to farm the way you farmed when you had slave labor.
The end of slavery brought on an industrial revolution that made farming increasingly mechanized to the point that most large farming operations are run, not with hundreds of employees but with only two or three who manage huge farm implements that do almost all of the backbreaking labor of agriculture.
Drive through much of Kansas and Oklahoma by the back roads and you encounter one ghost town after another because agriculture no longer employs many people and there is no need for the local businesses which once supported the farm community. The population of rural Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois is actually just a fraction of what it was 150 years ago because everyone has moved to metropolitan areas where there is employment.
But labor is a commodity. The cost of labor is calculated into the cost of food, clothing, retail goods, and transportation. If you increase labor costs, then you have to typically increase prices for everything from hamburgers to airline tickets. We have gotten used to cheap food because of low minimum wages in restaurants, and underpaid undocumented workers in agriculture.
But increases in the minimum wage do not result in increases of prices in the way you might think. If we doubled the minimum wage, the cost of a Big Mac will not double. In fact, it would probably make it go up by less than 20 cents.
In many countries that already have a minimum wage that is twice what ours is, as in Australia, the actual cost of a Big Mac is less than it is in the USA and those Australian employees also enjoy free universal healthcare, as workers do in all but one western democracy and that one, is, of course, the USA.
Now, that is not to say that raising the minimum wage to a living wage, which, for argument’s sake, we tend to say is $15/hour, though $15 an hour might be a living wage in parts of the Midwest, it wouldn’t be in most metropolitan areas, especially on the coasts, but, even that would cause some labor intensive businesses to close. We have enough Cashew Chicken restaurants in Springfield to be able to seat most of the city population all at one time, so, if wages were more fair, some of the excesses in some food services would close.
And, again, to be realistic, you couldn’t raise the minimum wage to $50 an hour all at once without sending destabilizing shockwaves through the whole of the world’s economy, but, gradual increases towards a realistic living wage have been shown to stimulate the economy. Compensate a poor person and extra $250 a week in their paycheck, and they will spend it, usually in retail stores, increasing profits all across the board.
Now, the reason that this is material is because we, as progressive people, have a deep interest in justice and in decreasing suffering, especially suffering that is caused by greed, racism, and ignorance. I’m talking about the minimum wage because the income disparity in our country is obscene, and the balance of incomes must be restruck. But where the church and the chamber of commerce ought to be able to hold hands is in the awareness that low wages increase the crime rate while increasing the demand for social services like subsidized housing, Medicaid, and food assistance.
It is no secret that the largest welfare recipient in America is Walmart. Many of us, as a matter of principle, refuse to shop at Walmart because of their abusive employer practices but even if you don’t go to Walmart, your tax dollars do. We pay billions of dollars in taxes to support the housing, healthcare, and food subsidies of the employees at Walmart.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the wealthy try to become more wealthy and that they often do that by trying to arrange the economy so that the public, through taxation, pay most of their business costs, while they increase their profits.
That’s going to happen. The question is the degree to which we allow it to happen. At this point in history, we have allowed it to happen to such a degree that many of the richest people in the world, the Walton family, which still owns more than 50% of Walmart, are also the nation’s largest beneficiaries of public welfare since we, the tax payers, are providing a huge portion of their labor subsidies.
But this isn’t purely a matter of greed. Like the American slave owners who moved to Brazil because they couldn’t imagine trying to farm without slave labor, Walmart is deeply invested in keeping wages low, unions out of their stores, and buying slave produced goods from the third world to keep their profits up. But does it really work?
We are about to get our first Costco box store in our area. It will open next month and it will be the first real competition given to Walmart and Sam’s Clubs. Costco is unionized, pays their employees a living wage from day one, and still, their prices are about the same, their profitability is twice that of Walmart, and their labor costs are actually lower because they retain their employees and because they have better and happier employees, they don’t have to have as many.
If you can make more money by paying your employees more, then your real reason for keeping salaries low has nothing to do with greed.
Like those southerners who took their slaves to Brazil, profit may have been the stated goal but an assumption of classism, class superiority, and oppression of the poor were a part of the mix. The Walton family is greedy, to be sure, but they also have a deficit of both imagination and compassion.
Proud Americans talk about our country being so great because of our freedom and democracy. And, sure, slaves on a plantation are not free to move about, but if your freedom is limited to being able to move from working for starvation wages at McDonalds to working for starvation wages at Walmart, are you really free?
As long as we keep wages at $7.25, are the poor among us really free? Are they really a part of democracy, especially if they are prevented from unionizing and often even prevented from voting? Why isn’t election day a national holiday? Or why can’t we all vote on Saturday or Sunday? Why do we always hold elections on Tuesdays during normal office hours? Isn’t it obvious that this gives tremendous advantage to owners and managers who can control their own hours, over hourly employees who cannot just take off for an hour or two to go vote?
But what is more close to my heart as a pastor, as a spiritual person, our country used to talk about Liberty and Equality. Now we just seem to shorten that to “freedom.” What ever happened to “equality” as an American value? It is almost like we have become afraid to say the word. Lady Justice appears in courthouse art, blindfolded and holding scales aloft to announce that we are all equal but are the rich and the poor equal in the halls of justice? Are white and black defendants equal when they go to court?
If the Trump administration showed us nothing else, especially with Attorney General, Bill Barr, we don’t have a justice system, we have a legal system.
We have laws but we don’t have much justice. The wealthy and powerful can literally stage a violent coups to overthrow our democracy and six months later, only the gullible pawns have been arrested, and none of the organizers, instigators, or people who planned to benefit from the coup have even been charged . . . heck, their lackies in the Republican Party won’t even allow them to be investigated because it would be like forming a search party to find the elephant in the room . . . it wouldn’t take long to bring charges of treason against Donald Trump, Bill Barr, and our own Senator Josh Hawley. And because it is so obvious, we are not allowed to open our eyes and look.
We don’t have a justice system, we just have a legal system that can be used to punish the poor for being poor, while turning a blind eye to the crimes of the wealthy and powerful. You have to remember that in their day, slavery was legal, the 19th century genocide of the American Indians was legal. The 20th Century German genocide of the Jews was legal. But it wasn’t moral. It wasn’t justice.
The legal system is used to keep poor people poor in our day. It is legal but it isn’t just. We religious people are the ones who still believe that equality is a part of what it means to be patriotic. . . even if everyone around us has almost forgotten.
I contend that the way things stand now, our minimum wage is little more than a reconfiguring of slavery. Our hypocritical laws about immigration, also forms a layer of slavery that runs most of our agriculture, hotel and motel, and construction industries, and no small portion of our restaurant industry. I insist that prisons are being used to create slave labor camps and transfer tax dollars to for profit corporations. And all of this is happening under the guise of democracy when it is, in any honest view, the opposite of democracy.
Are we bad people to let this go on? Are we evil if we peacefully accept this inequality, this level of poverty and violence? Well, maybe, or maybe we are like my hillbilly relatives who lacked imagination to envision a world that moved past slavery, that moved past the exploitation of immigrants and the poor, that worked together for the common good, to, as was said, e pluribus unum, to make one nation from the many different races, languages, religions, and tribes of the world, united in liberty and equality.
I don’t think that we are evil. I do think that we lack both compassion and imagination.
I don’t hate America, but I do believe in a better America. I am not willing to settle for the status quo because I can imagine something so much better.
The poet Robert Browning said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Folks what I am saying is that we cannot just accept the way things are as being the only way that things can be.
We must imagine more and better, for all of the people of the world. And if nothing else, at least get ready to burn your Sam’s card and start going to Costco. Baby steps, people, baby steps. But there is more for which we can hope.
Dr. Roger Ray