I was 14 years old before I realized all cheese did not come out of a government box. I was raised on powdered milk in the projects of Louisville, Kentucky. We didn’t have money. We had hunger. I learned to work so that I could eat.
After watching my stepfather work tirelessly for $6 an hour, I decided to pursue a degree in finance from Western Kentucky University. Following graduation, I landed a salaried position at a Fortune 50 company, but even after five years at the company, my wife was still cleaning other people’s toilets.
Eventually, I was offered an opportunity to pursue a career where I was covered under a collective agreement. My contract laid out a clear path to promotions and provided a ladder for additional opportunity. As my production increased, so did my compensation. Today, I am the division CEO of that very company, and I am proud to say that my company still values and rewards workers for their contributions.
Unfortunately, many workers today do not have the same opportunity I had. When companies fail to pay a fair wage, eliminate health care, dismantle paid time off and gut retirement benefits, we should all be outraged. Millions of people — people just like my stepfather — work full-time and live in poverty. We can do better.
Public policies should provide a foundation for working people to lift themselves out of poverty. Policies that increase income, opportunity and upward economic mobility can and should coexist with policies that increase profits.
Full employment policies and supporting legislation like the Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act will create healthy prevailing wages in underserved communities. Until we reach full employment, increasing the minimum wage, indexed to inflation, is an overdue solution to a very real problem for several million families who earn $7.25 an hour or less. If my stepfather were still alive, he would be discouraged that, taking inflation into account, today’s minimum-wage workers make 25 percent less than their counterparts made in 1968. This is even more astonishing given that the nation’s productivity has roughly doubled since then.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have been afforded “ownership” in various forms: ownership of a voice at work; ownership of the knowledge and skills I’ve gained; ownership of advancement opportunities; and ownership of financial rewards relative to productivity gains. I strongly believe that these forms of ownership provide workers hope and a path to upward economic mobility.
I support collective bargaining as a form of ownership. Unionized workers own a place at the bargaining table, thus ensuring they have a collective voice when it comes to fair pay. I contend that decisions like the recent Supreme Court ruling on Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31 are veiled attempts to diminish that collective voice. It is imperative that we not lose sight of the facts that a strong sustainable economy requires a balanced approach to the distribution of profits to all stakeholders. Public policies that upend that balance are simply bad for our communities.
Public investments in education, worker training and retraining should be central to addressing the opportunity deficit in our country. Owning knowledge in a fast-paced, technologically advanced workplace, or any industry, gives workers a step up.
We also need more legislation like the Main Street Employee Ownership Act of 2018, which expands funding and technical assistance to support cooperative business models. Communities across the country are exploring direct ownership through worker co-ops, a model that truly marries wages and profits.
I am heartened to see local communities creating public policies that reward workers and their contributions. As a member of the American Sustainable Business Council, I want to improve our local communities by coalescing public officials, business leaders, workers and the broader community to rewrite the rules that are rigged against the majority of working people.
As a country, we can do better.