Local option

I'm generally proud of Asheville: We have great beer, some pretty good food and a lot of smart people here. Still, I don't always support local. Why? In short, because I don't like low wages.

I think it’s wise for us locals to spend our money well. With any luck, we might be able to spend enough local dollars to influence our economy, even in a tourist town. To this end, may I suggest that we think about who works here?

Business owners are often quick to talk about how they turned downtown Asheville from a bunch of boarded-up buildings into a thriving community, but who does all the work every day at those businesses? No business owner built their business alone. Even if a given individual has never used our cheap labor, owners have collectively long enjoyed the benefit of having Biltmore House nearby. They didn't build that, or the Blue Ridge Parkway or the mountains or the weather — or me, as their customer.

Still, let's give credit where credit is due. If you’re a local business owner, congratulations. You gambled with your savings, or perhaps with a bank loan, and you were able to make it pay off somehow.

And it’s commendable that you were able to pay everyone who worked for you at least $11.35 an hour. Either that or you provided them with health insurance and paid them at least $9.85 an hour. For now, those figures are what it takes for a single person to live in Asheville. Maybe you did this because you wanted healthy workers who could maintain reliable transportation to get to work. Maybe you did it because you understood that reliable workers need to pay their utility bills so they can keep coming to work clean and fed.

Or maybe you didn't pay a living wage at all. No one ever forced you to, so why should you? Thanks to North Carolina's business-friendly state laws, employees aren't going to bargain for it. So you’ve been pretty much free to pay the minimum that will keep your employees coming back to work the next day. I mean, if they have a problem, they’re perfectly free to go get a job somewhere else, right?

Not really. If you live here and work for a living, you might have noticed that low wages are contagious. A large concentration of low-wage workers in one area will inevitably bid down everyone else’s wage expectations. Thus, if you work for a living, you are probably being affected by low-wage jobs, even if you aren't in one yourself. And as long as there are even worse-paying similar jobs down the street, you are probably not inclined to quit until the wages are, on average, better all over town.

There are at least two other reasons why everyone who works for a living should want at least a living wage for everyone else. First, your child or parent or even you yourself might be one of those workers someday. Suppose you end up working in a small, independent local business but still aren’t making a living wage. That means your bills won’t get paid — and maybe I'm the one who sent you that bill.

Second, if you pay taxes, you’re probably helping support low-wage workers, who often get public assistance. You’re also helping that person's employer continue to pay slum wages.

I'm not OK with that. And if you have a problem with it too, then I'd like to recommend three things: 1) Buy from places that pay at least a living wage. 2) Buy from workers' cooperatives, since people are generally paid the same and workers make the business decisions themselves. 3) Buy union-made goods whenever possible.

If there are local businesses that fit these criteria, then great! But if not, then don't support them just because they happen to be local. When you support local for the sake of local, then you also support local poverty.

— North Carolina native Thad Eckard is a factory worker and the current secretary of the Industrial Workers of the World, Asheville General Membership Branch.


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One thought on “Local option

  1. mat catastrophe

    The “living wages” promoted by Just Economics are a joke. America’s already depressed median wage is still hovering at its 1970s level of around $50,000 a year, and the $11.35 an hour (without benefits) that earns a business a JE A-OK comes out to less than half of that.

    And when you factor in how much it costs to obtain insurance without going through an employer, you can pretty much kiss one-quarter of that money away.

    Let’s face it, America’s problems are not about the tax rates for the rich, or the supposedly “unsustainable” entitlement programs, the problem is solely that we’ve allowed wages for the vast majority of America to remain low.

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