Commentary: Here's how to make a living (wage)

October 1, 2007

Of all the topics I could have chosen to write about this week, the one I kept coming back to was the whole issue of "living wage." You guys are a pretty sharp audience by the fact you read this publication, so maybe one of you can help me figure out the living wage crowd. I just don't get them.

If you saw last week's IBJ, you probably read Michael Dabney's story on the ongoing efforts by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to unionize downtown janitors. The SEIU argues that the $7-and-something an hour janitors get paid is not enough and they need to make a living wage. They say a living wage is the amount needed to meet the "minimum standards of living," a vague definition I don't understand.

When we talk about a minimum standard, what do we mean? Are we talking a two-bedroom downtown or a two-bedroom on the east side? Are we talking shopping at O'Malia's or Trader Joe's or Aldi's?

I argue that a living wage for me is to enjoy two decent martinis and a good cigar every day. For my brother who owns a home and has three daughters, his needs for a living wage are completely different. Of course, it does include ammunition, as his daughters are turning into teen-age girls.

When I look at the people who are clamoring for a "living wage," I also have to ask them, what are you qualified to do? One of the underlying principles of the free-market system is supply and demand; the more of the supply, the cheaper the product. And when it comes to living wage, the more people who can do the work, the less valuable the work is. And no offense to anyone who cleans for a living, but you don't need a degree from Harvard or Yale to be a good janitor. All you need is a strong work ethic.

When you can split atoms, while performing open-heart surgery, while crafting your next piano concerto, then you can talk to me about getting more cash. Until then, get lost. Don't expect a McDonnell Douglas salary when all you have are McDonald's skills.

Now, if employers want to pay their janitors, or anyone else who does menial labor, a lot of money, I say more power to them. In fact, I encourage it. Seem contradictory? Not really. Fundamentally, we all get what we pay for. And if you pay low wages, you won't get the best people for the job.

If I went into business for myself, I would pay my employees top dollar, not because I thought people should be paid a "living wage," but because I want the best and brightest to show up on my doorstep.

But not all employers are that enlightened. And some will just try to get by paying the bare minimum. Oh, well. The last time I checked, the 13th Amendment was still in effect and no one can be forced to work anywhere they don't want.

I was always taught that, if you want to make a good living for yourself, do all the things to prepare yourself, like get a good education and look for opportunities. Maybe if the people who say they need to make a living wage did that instead of complaining about how much they don't make, they would be better off and enjoy a nice life instead of complaining about not making a living.

Shabazz is the morning show host on WXNT-AM 1430 and of counsel at the law firm of Lewis & Wilkins. His column appears monthly. He can be reached by e-mail at ashabazz@ibj.com.
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