Saturday, December 17, 2011

Is Small Really Always Better When It Comes to Workers???

I have long thought that there is a fundamental problem with those who romantise local businesses in the US. There is, of course, a widespread belief amongst some smaller is better apologists and polemicists that local and small businesses, in and of themselves, are inherently good and treat their workers fairly and justly while big businesses are, in and of themselves, inherently bad and treat their workers badly. But is that really the case?

What I'd love to see from these small is better apologists and polemicists is some real statistics about how real small and big businesses actually treat their employees. What percentage of local small businesses pay their employees a living wage? What percentage provide reasonably priced benefits to their workers? What percentage limit their owners or CEO's salary a reasonable percentage of entry workers wages?

Once upon a time I worked for a "local" business. The wages I received were not even close to a living wage. The benefits available to me, specifically the health benefits offered at this local small business, were unaffordable on my salary. The CEO's wages compared to mine? Not sure but I have my suspicions.

Compare this to national chains. In the early 2000s Half Price Books, a national used and remaindered book chain store, started their employees above the minimum wage and above the wages of the local bookstore I worked for, gave their employees benefits at no and later at low cost, and offered their employees profit sharing. The Portland used bookstore Powell's, which has gone national thanks to its website, is unionised. The national supermarket Whole Foods limits their CEO's wages to 18 times the wages of their average worker. Ben and Jerry's, the national ice cream firm, used to limit CEO to employee pay to a five to one ratio but dropped this in 2000 when they became part of the international conglomerate Unilever.

There are of course anomalies to what I am arguing here. But they are anomalies that seem to me to prove the rule. Albany, New York's independent bookstore provides employees with reasonably priced benefits, profit sharing, bonuses, and time and a half on Sunday.

In the end the issue for me is not some abstract idea about the inherent beauty of the local and the small versus the inherent ugliness of the international or national. It is how do businesses small or big, local or national, treat their workers? And the fact is that by and large local small businesses don't treat their workers any better than national businesses do and in many cases they treat them worse. This fact inevitably raises the question of why should I keep Austin weird and why should I buy locally if the local and small treat their workers as bad if not worse than big national and international corporations?

1 comment:

  1. response from my friend Jarvis Presley...
    Thank you! You have succinctly articulated thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. A couple of years ago, a local referendum was passed by voters calling for guaranteed 5-day sick leave policy for Milwaukee-based businesses. The local Chamber of Commerce locked up the requirement in a court battle, where the initiative languishes to this day. When it comes to local versus national, the devil is indeed in the details!