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I just went through the excruciating experience of purchasing a new, old car (pre-owned). Since I always talk about the environment, I thought it was about time that I buy an energy-efficient car—hence a hybrid.

time for living wage

What I learned from the salespeople during the process, however, was discouraging and made me rethink a lot of things. A typical commission for an associate selling the “middle class” car is between $100 and $200. For each, selling only one car per week is unacceptable to the dealer regardless of the prevailing economic circumstances depressing sales.

If they want to keep their jobs, these agents are expected to sell about 10 cars a month. At even $200 per car, that is only $2000—well below minimum wage for a 40-hour week.

The alternative is to accept the minimum wage of a little better than $9 an hour (with the occasional bonus)—a result not even close to a living wage. Keep in mind, they don’t get a commission on top of the $9—it’s one or the other. It is rare to sell enough cars to make a living on commission alone.

Yes, this class of worker has long been maligned—earning (though perhaps undeservedly) a bad reputation. Maybe their woe-is-me stories are true, after all—being constantly under pressure to sell a car (with all the added bells and whistles). Even the unionization of dealer mechanics is a myth. Both categories of workers are barely eking out a living. The unions are a thing of the past.

For these workers and all the rest of non-salaried employees, the struggle goes on.

Last week, as part of the Raise the Wage Campaign here in Los Angeles, 15 low income-earning women fasted for 15 days asking—even demanding—a 15 dollar an hour minimum wage which equates to a living wage (here-and-now but insufficient for the future).

Drivers at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports continue to negotiate, demonstrate, and strike against recalcitrant drayage firms which still refuse to commit to a contract acceptable to both sides. The ask is to “re-hire” misclassified workers as employees with all rights and privileges that that status includes and then pay them what they deserve.

This week, constituencies have been speaking before City Council and County Supervisorial committees on this very urgent subject. There are exigent circumstances—now more than ever-- that require paying our workers a wage that is commensurate with the current cost of living.

For me, $15 an hour (that which has already been granted to employees of our major hotels) must be authorized now—not years from now when the cost of living will make $15 worth far less. And any raise must be indexed after the date of implementation of new wage laws so that workers can keep up and not fall hopelessly behind all over again.

If we are ever to break the cycle of impoverished, unsafe, poorly educated, underemployed neighborhoods (about which so many of the better-off bitterly complain—particularly regarding “the tax burden”), we must act now.

If we are ever to break the cycle of impoverished, unsafe, poorly educated, underemployed neighborhoods (about which so many of the better-off bitterly complain—particularly regarding “the tax burden”), we must act now. It is the moral and ethical thing to do but it is also the most pragmatic path to take.

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Small businesses often complain about the millstone of rising wages. Owners speak about their rags-to-riches start (and want our sympathy) and how from one store, they now have 10 and cannot possibly make ends meet if wages are raised as so many of us are asking.

Well, I have three answers for them:

  • Moo Cluck Moo in Michigan opened its doors paying $15 an hour and within months was so successful, it was in a position to open a second restaurant. This is only one example of the multitude of small businesses across the country that are following a competitive, successful formula which, at the same time, pays a living wage for their loyal employees. Remember, loyal, happy workers reduce costly turnover and increase the viability and profitability of a business.
  • No one should even consider opening a business if the owner cannot take proper care of its employees. Such an imperative should be considered an essential, necessary part of doing business. Hence, instead of owning 10 stores, the proprietor can open 9 and pay their workers what is their due!
  • Picture dominoes “falling” upward. The one at the end which is lying flat on its back is the bottom-income earner. As that tile rises, so do all the others. It’s not trickle down but trickle up. It stands to reason, then, that when people earn more, they spend more. The economy expands for all.

Being paid well helps workers regain the dignity and respect they have lost for too long over the years. Being paid well promotes the ability of these workers to become genuine stakeholders in the communities in which they live. Such workers, as a consequence, can imbue a sense of pride in their families, friends, and neighbors. The lure of crime dissipates while an attraction toward becoming positive, constructive contributors to society is engendered.

When that happens, we all win.

As Ted Kennedy repeatedly proclaimed, “The cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dreams shall never die!” We must take up that battle-cry and bring a living wage to every worker. No one who works a 40-hour week should have to scrape by and choose among food for their children, keeping the electricity on, and paying the rent.

Gwendolyn Brooks put it so well when she said what we must heed:

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

These words cannot be empty entreaties. We simply can no longer tolerate such feelings of hopelessness, futility, and pain faced by far too many among us. We, as a Society, must never turn a blind eye on this crisis. We are better than that!

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Rosemary Jenkins