Opinion – What Does a Just Wage Have to Do With Pursuing Happiness?

Let’s face it, whether you’ve stayed in Detroit your whole life, or you’re from the burbs and are just now discovering the meaning of urban existence, there’s excitement in the air. It’s always been here – I believe it’s the spirit of the city – and it has always been driving change. But for a Baby Boomer who grew-up to become the quintessential “corporate man”, this excitement – the entrepreneurial energy – is pointing to a revolution in the way we practice business.

Our lead story surveys a number of businesses that make their home in Detroit and are standing Friedman’s “shareholder primacy” model on its head. These social enterprises – The Empowerment Project, Pingree Detroit and Rebel Nell – are making a very real statement about the purpose of business, which is to lift-up the common good –not just put money in someone’s pocket.

One of the things that seems to define Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit is the valuing of the relational over the commodity form. In other words, those relationships we hold with each other, as community, and the relationship we hold with the Earth system are being given equal, or greater value than money. It is, after all, the connections we hold with each other – the extent to which we can rely on each other – and the relationship we have with the very thing that gives us life, that are far more meaningful than a commodity that fluctuates in value. But let’s not be naïve: In this system, money talks.

So, how do these social enterprises go about addressing the need for money? They pay a just and living wage. In this way, their workers can afford the necessities of life, while still having time to devote to family and to upholding the meaning of “the pursuit of happiness”.

These words, written almost 250 years ago, have a meaning we’ve managed to overlook in our age. The pursuit of happiness actually goes back to Aristotle. The framers borrowed from what Aristotle understood about the meaning of citizenship. Aristotle knew people needed time to find the true meaning of happiness, which is manifest in “giving back” to community. In other words, we become the truest sense of who we’re supposed to be when we have time to give back and more deeply connect with those around us.

We need time to become the human beings we are meant to be – in the fullest sense of what this means. If we’re working all the time, and still don’t make enough to pay the bills, we will not have the opportunity to fulfill our obligations as citizens. It’s really that simple. Without a just and living wage, we cannot attain what we’ve been promised: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

It’s not easy, though, to take a stand and pay a just wage. Paying a just wage – in this system – is a risk; it takes a commitment and a willingness to sacrifice. The business leaders we celebrate this month – Veronica, Jarrett and Amy – are pioneers: They are making sacrifices to show the value that ought to be placed on the dignity of human work. There’re also giving back and contributing to the common good of the community.

Veronika, Jarrett and Amy are going beyond what the market would dictate. What they’re doing isn’t written in an MBA textbook. Yet, when it comes down to it, each of us knows that the person who works to the best of his or her ability ought to be justly compensated.  The problem is this system has evolved to a point where policy – the rules of the game – doesn’t support this value.

We live in an age that is rightly called neo-liberal, meaning “the new” liberal. This liberal has nothing to do with free love and hippy communes, and everything to do with what Charles Dickens taught in A Christmas Carol: That unbridled capitalism – the liberalization of the market – without any sense of morality, leads to grotesque characters like Ebenezer Scrooge. Fortunately, Ebenezer woke-up, and so can we. In fact, we’re seeing the stirrings of this awakening, and it’s happening on an issue called “overtime threshold.”

If you’re not familiar with overtime threshold, it has to do with the point at which a salaried employee becomes eligible to earn overtime pay. It’s also been a polemic since a rule change made by the Obama administration, which went into effect in 2016, would have lifted the threshold from $23,600 to $47,500.

In essence, and under the current federal rule, a non-management worker earning a salary of $23,600 or less is eligible for overtime pay, while a worker earning more than this amount is not. The Obama rule raised the threshold below which overtime can be paid to $47,500; however, the change was blocked by a federal judge in Texas.

In March of this year, the Trump administration began working on the issue and recently proposed changes that will go into effect this January. This change “lifts the annual salary threshold below which workers qualify for overtime wages to $35,568 from the current level of roughly $23,600” (Bloomberg Law).

Just recently, in Michigan, Gov. Whitmer announced she’s “ordered the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to write a rule that would go beyond the Trump administration rules.” Whitmer’s proposal would lift the threshold below which workers would be eligible for overtime pay to $51,000.

To put this into context, in a recent Detroit News op-ed, State Sen. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, wrote, “This isn’t a new problem [overtime pay], but it has steadily become worse over the past half-century. In 1975, 63% of workers were able to earn overtime pay. Now, it’s down to just 5%. The original overtime rule was set to help protect salaried workers who aren’t supervisors or managers, ensuring that they would be provided overtime pay to help make ends meet — yet fewer and fewer people are able to earn extra pay despite not being managers or supervisors” (Detroit News).

Over the last fifty years, we’ve been told that “government is the problem” and that markets are the answer; yet, in that same period of time, we’ve seen the number of American workers eligible for overtime pay drop by more than 12 fold. What’s wrong with this picture?

If we’re going to work, we ought to be compensated and that compensation ought to be just. It’s really not that difficult to comprehend. Fortunately, with entrepreneurs such as Veronika, Jarrett and Amy revolutionizing the purpose of business, and with progressive leadership in Lansing, we just may see our ability to “pursue happiness” begin to improve.

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