The conversation right now about the minimum wage is veering off in the wrong direction. That’s because all the parties are not showing up for the debate.
Take the wave of small-business owners saying recently that the implementation of an immediate $15 minimum wage would be catastrophic for them. Peter Aaron, owner of Elliott Bay Book Company, has said he’d have to cut employees, which could hurt his ability to serve customers. At a recent town hall meeting of the mayor’s and the city council’s minimum-wage committees, a Dick’s Drive-In vice president, Jasmine Donovan, said that a wage hike could cause Dick’s to cut their famously generous worker benefits and raise prices on food.
But there is a notable group that isn’t showing up to town halls and isn’t making their views known: big business.
All the Targets and Walmarts have to do right now to avoid getting the stink of a difficult conversation on them is to stay the hell out of the way—which lets them off the hook way too easily. A conversation that pits local workers and local small-business owners against each other is a fight that benefits big business more than anyone. And it’s big business reaping record profits, the big businesses that employ more than 60 percent of low-wage workers, and the big businesses that are the egregious offenders in the wage fight—not small businesses, many of which struggle to stay afloat.
Did you see someone from Target get up at that town hall meeting and chat about how much they love their employees but don’t mind if they have to live in subsidized housing because, shucks, there’s just no other way to make the business work? A top dog from McDonald’s or Burger King getting up to say they’re proud to offer jobs in this town and it’s just too dang bad that many of those jobs strand people in an endless cycle of crippling poverty? No, you didn’t.
And it’s too damn bad.
“McDonald’s made $5.6 billion last year,” says Sage Wilson, spokesman for Working Washington, which helped organize last year’s fast-food strikes. “I’m confident they can find a way to get to $15 ASAP.” But, he continues, “I think there’s other community-based businesses where there’s room for a conversation about how to get there.”
The groups and activists fighting hardest for the wage raise? They see a distinction between huge national chains and the indie shop down the street. And 15 Now, an organization commonly cast as stern and uncompromising, says they see local small businesses as their natural allies in this campaign. “One of the things that’s important to point out,” says Phillip Locker, a 15 Now organizer, “is that the problem that small businesses face is not high wages, fundamentally. The problem is the pressure they’re under from big businesses that can outcompete them… We would say to small businesses that they’re being manipulated and used by the people who every day are driving them out of business.”
Locker says 15 Now is interested in addressing meaningful ways to support local and smaller businesses through new policies in tandem with raising the wage. “No association of small businesses is going to get an $8.7 billion tax break from the State of Washington,” he argues. “But Boeing can, and does.” Tax breaks could help small businesses, too—if they were designed to. “We want to be working together with small businesses to address the unfair competition they face from big business,” says Locker, “to restructure the tax policy of our city and state.” He also mentions other ways to support local businesses—like addressing land-use codes that incentivize crappy chains on the bottom floors of all those condo buildings, or adding excise taxes on big-box retailers, franchises, or financial institutions.
The wage raise itself would undoubtedly help local businesses in another way, says Wilson: “People not getting paid enough money means that people don’t buy enough stuff to keep the economy functioning the way it’s structured now.” Big businesses have “pioneered the model” of poverty-level wages and spread it across the country, to the detriment of mom-and-pop outfits. “I don’t think they want to be paying their people so little,” Wilson says of beloved local bookstore owners and restaurateurs. “I don’t think there are a lot of folks who are happy with that system, either.”
But a lot of small-business owners are not political, they’re not sitting around perfecting their rhetoric—they’re just trying to order the right stuff for their inventory and make payroll and get through the week. And this move toward what they see as a new expense understandably freaks ’em out.
So it’s the public’s job—and the politicians’—to keep big business’s feet to the fire and create a policy that will raise tens of thousands of people out of poverty, while strengthening the local economy.