Sunday, May 18, 2008

Labor Pains

(originally published by Mass. Publishing in the print edition of Local Buzz, Jan. 2008)

There are some things that City Government should do, and there's some things that City Government shouldn't do. There's some things that the Community needs to do...there are things that come up that people need to focus on as a community." -Mayor Mary Clare Higgins, on the Community Radio Hour show, discussing the lack of a municipal board or committee in the City of Northampton dealing with labor issues on behalf of residents.

When Carol Johnson, Executive Director of the Amherst Cinema Center, met informally with the Northampton Arts Council -- of which I am a member -- to discuss plans for the Pleasant Street Theater, the issues of wages arose. Would Pleasant Street’s pay scale -- which, historically, had a reputation for being slightly higher than other area theaters -- be retained under the new management? But this was a meeting about the arts, and about how the Arts Council could support the theater as a part of Northampton’s arts community. Talking about wages and labor issues was clearly a topic Ms. Johnson was uncomfortable with, and seemed understandably perplexed that the issue was raised. These issues are a matter for Amherst Cinema’s Board of Directors. We moved on.

The City of Northampton’s Web site boasts 49 city services for residents, and 43 departments serving any number of well-deserved groups and interests. As well, there is a list of 27 Boards and Committees, not including the large number of sub-committees these boards create, all doing their part to serve an interest or group, all attempting to create a more equitable and just community for the residents of Northampton. Trees, Bicyclists, Economic Development, Human Rights, Artists, Landowners, Business Owners, Athletes, Veterans, Students, Young People, Gay People, the Elderly, Dog Owners -- they’re all represented.

What’s missing? Labor issues. Issues having to do with wages and employment. There is no committee in Northampton that advocates exclusively on behalf of the working class. If you are working class, and have issues or concerns that you identify as such, there is no municipal committee or board exclusively defined that you could use as a vehicle for advocacy or assistance.

Gerald Friedman, a professor in the UMass Department of Economics with a Ph.D. from Harvard, specializes in labor issues. I asked him via e-mail whether there were other examples of local, municipal labor boards in the United States. There are few, he explained, adding, "The lack of forms of recognition of workers outside of unions has always been a problem because it denies collective recognition to workers who found it particularly difficult to organize themselves into unions -- including the less-skilled, women, minorities, and domestic workers."

So, if you want to advocate for employment, labor, or wage issues within or under the guidance of a municipal board or committee, you must re-define your concern under the auspices of another label -- by default erasing or ignoring the issue of class. If you work and own a bicycle, you could advocate for bike lanes to ride that bike to work. If you work and are gay, you could advocate to be treated equally under the law, as a gay person. If you work, create art, and live in town, you can receive subsidies and assistance to create your art, as an artist who lives in town. If you own a business, you could advocate for tax breaks, subsidized parking, or special permits to use public space. But in Northampton, if you simply work, there is no committee for you to advocate for anything.

And while many would argue that issues of wage, working conditions and employment should fall strictly under the jurisdiction of the market, is there still value in creating a public forum for the discussion and advocacy of these issues?

"It has become a particular problem in recent decades with the general decline of the union movement," Friedman told me. "I think our economy is hurt and our democracy is impoverished by the lack of collective representation for workers as workers. It would well behoove a progressive community like Northampton to establish a labor council to make a first step towards remedying this gap."