From SantaCruzSentinel.com, Kimberly Freeman Brown, 4 Sept 2011.
This Labor Day, it’s no secret that California’s working families are facing an unprecedented set of challenges: sky-high unemployment, stagnant wages and an uncertain economic future.
Huge income disparities between the haves and have-nots are dividing our communities. According to the Pew Research Center, we have also seen a new racial divide, as the median white household now possesses 20 times more wealth than the median black household and 18 times that of Hispanic households. Too many companies are taking advantage of the same economic crisis they helped created by raking in record profits while squeezing employees for more hours and less pay.
However, as consumers we have tremendous power. Time and time again industry practices have changed because consumers demanded better and spoke with their wallets. Corporate interests and their allies in Congress may want us to believe that profitability and socially responsible business practices are mutually exclusive, but this Labor Day, we’ve got news for the naysayers: Responsibility works.
Companies that act responsibly are all around us, they just don’t dominate the headlines. A growing number of employers are adopting a different business model: invest in employees and their rights in order to improve everyone’s bottom line. This approach may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true.
Take for example Watsonville’s Monterey Mushrooms right here in California.
You’ve likely seen mushrooms and seeds grown by Monterey in your local grocery store — they sell portabellas, shiitakes and everything in between across the country and around the world. You probably don’t know that the company has partnered with its employees and their union to become an industry leader, and set the standard for responsible labor practices in agriculture.
Monterey credits its success to treating its employees well and its long-term commitment to respect in the workplace. Monterey’s workers and their union, the United Farm Workers, are in turn, deeply invested in the company doing well. Along with earning some of the highest wages in the industry, all company employees receive medical benefits, including vision and dental insurance, as well as access to family leave.
Through their union, employees are empowered to make recommendations to streamline company operations. Employees aren’t the only ones benefitting from the labor-management partnership at Monterey Mushrooms. Turnover — a potentially costly part of doing business — is virtually nonexistent and the company now boasts many second-generation employees.
Like conscientious businesses across the country, Monterey Mushrooms understands that doing right by its employees is ultimately good for the bottom line. The reasons are simple. Collective bargaining ensures that workers earn family-supporting pay, while creating additional avenues for innovation that keep companies profitable.
These workers can rejoin the ranks of America’s dwindling middle class, and inject much-needed consumer spending into our fragile economy. Unions also give all workers a voice. A study in the American Sociological Review revealed that declining union membership has directly correlated to increased inequality in America. Stronger unions would bring back a fairer economy, benefiting union members and non-members alike.
Watching our economy get wrecked by Wall Street speculation and corporate greed, it quickly became clear that we have to build a new economy if we want to keep this country strong. We must invest in those companies, like Monterey Mushrooms, that promote the well-being of their employees, consumers and our communities. So this holiday weekend, consider the impact your consumer dollars can have on jobs in this country — be it yours, your neighbors, those across California or throughout the United States. By making informed choices, we can build the kind of economy — the kind of country — we want to leave to our children.
Kimberly Freeman Brown is executive director of American Rights at Work, a labor policy and advocacy organization.