Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#461 - A High-wage, Low-waste Future -- Part 4, Sustainable America -- Part 1, 27-Sep-1995

Some people are comparing the present moment to 1954, the last time the
Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. But perhaps a
better comparison would be to 1896 when the populist movement was
crushed by corporate money and the nation fell under the dominance of
robber barons and an emerging corporate elite --a dominance that was
wasn't broken until the New Deal nearly 40 years later.

So what should progressives do? Clearly the answer is NOT "more of what
we've been doing." We are already killing ourselves working overtime
and not getting very far.

We need to do something different --something big that has the
potential to get most of us working together, and has the potential to
excite and engage large numbers of people who are presently parked on
the sidelines. Last week, we described a large "democracy project"
aimed at making democracy itself an issue --an issue that all
progressives could unite around, and which might motivate some
liberals, who now seem paralyzed staring into their mirrors.

A major advantage of a "democracy" campaign is that it could address
all the root problems of the present system --dominance of our society
by corporations, which answer to no one; the fully-corrupting influence
of private money in politics; the inability of ordinary people to have
some say about their economic future. These are the fundamental issues
of our democracy.

This last issue --giving people some say about the economy --is really
THE crucial issue of our time: does the economy control us, or do we
control it? Slowly over the last 50 years, we seem to have forgotten
the purpose of the economy: to create prosperity with stability. In
earlier times, Henry Ford said he wanted to pay his employees wages
high enough so they could buy his cars, thus creating conditions that
gave birth to the middle class. Today the corporados proudly point to
the fact that they have broken the backs of many labor unions, and that
wages are low and steadily falling while corporate profits are setting
records. This is a trend that will produce neither prosperity nor
stability. We seem to have forgotten that the economy is a tool to
serve the needs of society, not the other way around.

Is this some utopian socialist dream, that people really want a say in
the economy? Far from it. In the U.S. today, limits on the terms and
conditions of production and exchange are more popular than ever. This
is what underlies the almost universal belief that work should be
adjusted to the realities of families (flex hours, family leave, etc.).
This is what fuels the belief that employers have obligations to
employees and communities beyond pay and taxes (job safety; factories
that don't gas the neighborhood, etc.). If you think about it, having
more say about production and exchange is what the environmental
movement is about (reducing use of toxics, limiting dioxin discharges,
etc.). Giving people more say about the economy would have ENORMOUS
political appeal.

Although government and the general public are ill-prepared to instruct
business on how best to achieve economic goals, the goals themselves
CAN be specified by the general public: for example, full employment
for the able-bodied; decent housing, education, and health care for
all; an economy that is not obscenely unfair nor massively wasteful of
natural resources.

What is most basically wrong with current economic policy is its
failure to block the low-wage option of industrial restructuring --the
option that seeks profit and increased competitiveness via downsizing,
temporary workers, reduced benefits (or NO benefits) job insecurity,
environmental degradation, and cutbacks in social spending, regulation,
and training, combined with lowered taxes for corporations and the
rich. This low-wage, high-waste option

--the "low road" --is what we'll get IN SPADES if we don't intervene.

We need campaigns both to foreclose the low-wage option AND to harness
the productive energies of workers and communities in a more satisfying
restructuring path --a high-wage, low-waste option ("the high road").
We need a way to limit certain options for capital AND to
simultaneously indicate an alternative, more democratic restructuring
route that is viable under realistic competitive conditions.

One could imagine a series of projects to "have our say about the
economy" --making economic goals the subject of big organizing
campaigns. To give but one example:

** A livable wage campaign. Everyone who works should make a wage that
allows him or her to raise a family. There shouldn't be any such thing
as "the working poor." If you are able-bodied, you should have work,
and if you have work you should make a livable wage. Is this some nut-
ball utopian dream? It is not. It is a basic human right, affirmed by
the United States alongside the other nations of the world. In 1948,
the U.S. government voted affirmatively to approve the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (which was approved by the United Nations
General Assembly December 10, 1948). Article 23 of the Universal
Declaration says, "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of
employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection
against unemployment." The same Article goes on to say, "Everyone who
works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for
himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and
supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection."

Furthermore, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration says, "Everyone
has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-
being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing,
medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security
in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age,
or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control." A "livable
wage campaign" would merely give substance in the U.S. to these basic
human rights.

How to start? A livable wage campaign can begin at the local level. For
example, in Baltimore, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development
(BUILD), a church-based organization, joined with a labor union --the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) -
-and with the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee, an organization of
Baltimore's low wage service workers. Together they successfully
campaigned for the passage of a municipal Living Wage Bill. This
ordinance, which was signed in December, 1994, requires city
contractors to pay a living wage rather than the woefully inadequate
federal minimum. As a result, employees of city contractors saw their
hourly wages go up from $4.25 to $6.10 in the summer of 1995, and will
see their wages rise incrementally to $7.70 an hour over a four year
period. This reverses Baltimore's old poverty-wage policy, which gave
lucrative contracts to employers who paid family wages below the
poverty line --contracts which cost the city millions in food stamps
and health care.

Or a living wage campaign can take the form of a statewide ballot
initiative, as it has in Oregon where the More Livable Wage Coalition
is aiming now to raise Oregon's minimum wage to $6.50 an hour by 1999.
(For details, call 503-288-7932 in Portland.)

But a living wage campaign is merely one way to "have our say in the
economy." We need to think larger.

Other ideas might include:

** An "our money, our jobs" campaign targeted at "subsidy abuse" by
government (the all-too-common use of taxpayer money to subsidize the
low-road and make the high-road more difficult);

** A campaign for better rules on the use of monies earmarked for
training dislocated workers (e.g., requiring that people actually get
trained, not just taught how to type their resumes);

** A gigantic summer youth jobs effort (with a continuation in the

Less important than deciding on particular campaigns right now,
however, is deciding TOGETHER that we will do that TOGETHER from here
on out, and saying so. We should announce our collective intention to
oppose what we see as this economically stupid and morally empty low-
wage option --to make that itself an issue, and make it clear that we
intend to move on it in a variety of forms. As a group, we need to say
something like, "Diverse as we are, we stand together in declaring that
ruinous low-wage restructuring must and can stop, and we hold our
elected officials and ourselves account-able to stopping it and
starting something better --a high-wage, low-waste, more democratically
controlled economy. We oppose anything that furthers current
destruction. We support policies aimed at raising social standards --on
wages, production conditions, environmental sensitivity --and
developing popular capacity to enforce them. We want public policy to
support a new social contract, with public supports for firms complying
with its terms and punishment of those defecting from it. We seek and
accept responsibility and control in the administration of this
contract. Its terms are..." and here we fill in the blanks.

Closing off the low-wage option for American firms and restoring some
significant measure of popular control over our economic future will be
a brutal political fight --fiercely resisted by well-heeled forces that
benefit from the current lack of constraint. Who in America is most
likely to lead this fight? Will it be the residents of declining rural
regions? The rich white suburban enclaves? The low-wage and non-union
ex-urban manufacturing zones? Surely, none of the above. The most
likely agent will be urban, heavily "of color," and more unionized than
the norm. In other words, this will be a metropolitan battle --a fight
for the soul of our country, starting in the wreck of our cities and
their hard-luck inner-ring suburbs. This is where a Sustainable America
[1] can begin to be built.

This will require progressives to get serious about linking their
issues (whatever they may be) to economic development, and about
establishing a presence inside corporations. Some environmentalists are
already doing this --establishing "good neighbor agreements" with
polluters, promoting the redevelopment of "brown field" sites in
cities, demanding that "covenants" be signed between local governments
and corporations that get tax breaks, and so forth.

If we are to achieve prosperity and stability in a sustainable
environment, we must do more of this. To create a Sustainable America,
[1] we will need to gain some control over corporate behavior and the
economy, starting at the local level. It will not be easy, but consider
the low-road alternative and you'll most likely agree: plowing this
ground is something we must do.

--Peter Montague


[1] Once again, we have cribbed extensively from Joel Rogers at
University of Wisconsin, and his activist colleagues, though neither he
nor they are responsible for our corrupted version of their ideas.
Rogers and friends have started a large new project called Sustainable
America; for details, phone Elaine Gross at (516) 692-2601 or send E-
mail to egross@igc.apc.org.

Descriptor terms: joel rogers; sustainable america; economic
development; corporations; democracy; strategies; urban redevelopment;
wages; conditions of work; economy;