$15 MINIMUM WAGE
WHAT IT MEANS TO BLACK PEOPLE
William Henry Ford and his most trusted executives crowded into an office above the manufacturing line in his company’s Detroit, Michigan auto plant. Ford, having pitched a revolutionary idea to his team, looked on as his top executives attempted to wrap their minds around what was just suggested. Ford, a millionaire many times over, had just closed one of his most successful years in Ford Motor Company’s short history, posting over $23M in profit.
While many industry tycoons measured success in dollars and cents, Ford was seemingly unmoved by profit alone and preferred to measure Ford Motor Company’s success by the efficiency of his production line. Between 1913 and the end of 1914, Ford saw production times of its flagship motorcar, the Model T, drop from 12 1/2 hours to a mere 93 minutes largely due to just two workplace changes over the previous year’s production.
First, Ford reconfigured the auto plant into an auto assembly line, with workers specializing in a single part of the vehicle’s production, becoming better and faster at completing their portion of the vehicle’s production. The second was what Ford pitched on that cold January morning in 1914 that stunned his senior executive team… the $5/day salary.
$5/day for every employee!
With his $5/day salary, Ford revolutionized the industry’s side of the social contract by insisting that laborers take pride and provide precision in their execution of the daily task no matter how mundane these tasks may be, and in return, a salary that stood to elevate the laborer to a new role uncommon among the working poor, the role of consumer.
With Ford’s $5/day, every employee of the Ford Motor Company could now afford a brand new Model T, meaning that Ford not only created unfamiliar security for his employees with his revolutionary new wage, but those employees could now punch out of a day’s work and realistically afford to browse the showroom.
In fact, this was Ford’s dream all along. Ford always wanted to make a car that everyone could afford and realized that the hurdles he faced were not on the supply side nor were they on the sales side. Ford’s hurdle to putting a Model T in every regular American’s driveway was simple. Regular Americans simply made too little to buy anything that wasn’t an absolute necessity. America’s recipe for wealth…squeeze out every ounce of labor for very little cents had backfired and Ford knew it.
In 1914, one hundred and eight years ago, Henry Ford made a discovery. Paying employees a living wage, no matter their skin color, no matter their age, or country of origin, would result in greater performance, higher profits, and more customers.
Ford employees would make $133 a day in 2021!
So why is it that today, with Henry Ford being considered one of America’s greatest tycoons of industry, is the Federal minimum wage still stuck at the same $7.25/hr as it was in 2009? Didn’t Ford prove that paying employees a living wage was the secret to turning them into economic contributors? In fact, considering inflation, Ford employees would make $133 a day in 2021, an hourly rate of $16.62! That’s right, all things considered, you would make less than half of what your grandfather could make at Ford Motor Company in 1914 on today’s federal minimum wage. Was Ford’s revolutionary wage proposition so revolutionary that we still haven’t caught up? Well… yes and no.
Actually, it’s a little more nuanced than that. While Ford can be credited with starting a conversation about wage equity among races in America, the company cannot be exonerated from the collective discriminatory practices customary of American corporations and citizens alike during the early 1900s and since. This wasn’t just an American problem either. Discrimination and racism in the workplace were commonplace, from America to the Congo to South East Asia, homogenous majorities practiced their bigotry in the wide open with impunity.
What Ford discovered in 1914, and what the other titans of industry failed to notice is that they were not just competing across product lines or brands but across class and the imposing definitions of class… especially the working class (read “working poor.”) The working poor had a finite amount of resources, never too much and rarely enough so the majority of those funds went to schooling and clothes for the children, food, and rent which they were already paying to the millionaire class property owners. Choice, as it so happens, is a luxury too few could afford and if you thought I was still speaking historically, you are incorrect.
The working poor’s greatest contribution to the “American Experiment” is their aching, empty bellies, and the fire burning inside them to resolve their hunger
This exact same phenomenon exists today, and like yesteryear, the rich business owners still don’t get it. The working poor’s greatest contribution to the “American Experiment” is their aching, empty bellies, and the fire burning inside them to resolve their hunger, if only for the moment. The millionaire class today gets its support much the same way as they did 100 years ago, selling access to otherwise inaccessible commodities at an incredible profit. Who do you think they sell their mysteriously inaccessible commodities to, historically and still today? The number one customer of the business owner is of course their underpaid employees.
Today’s business owners ignore the value of their human resources and instead focus on cost-cutting or quality reduction for their profit. The employees work for a legal minimum and pay the legal maximum for scarce commodities like housing, food, and other vital services.
Unlike Ford, who sought to invigorate sales by ensuring that every employee could afford a Model T, Today’s business owners ensure that they pay as little for inputs and labor as possible, then sell their employees an inferior product or service with a minimum guarantee.
America has a long storied history of this type of exploitive financial relationship with African Americans
While throughout history, the employee roster has been comprised of people from many backgrounds, countries, and complexions, America has a long storied history of this type of exploitive financial relationship with African Americans and it is older than the Union itself.
After Emancipation, many Black people were disenchanted with the idea of leaving even the most egregious of situations with a predictable master, then to be turned out to the dark and dank woodland. White landowners in the south couldn’t ever imagine themselves working a crop once worked by a gang of Negros, no matter the profit. The precedent was set, working the crop was a Negro’s job, and in the eyes of many White southerners, it was one of the few jobs they were qualified to do.
In an effort to appease southern Whites, and spur on Lincoln’s efforts at reconstruction, lawmakers in many states, even some in the North passed laws that advantaged the White landowner in any deal made with a Negro. Sharecropping and tenant cropping, the dominant contractual relationships between landowners and the newly emancipated freedmen rose to prominence.
Slavery by another name.
These advantages allowed White landowners to determine the crop, cancel leases, limit supplies and use other methods that rendered sharecropping relationship slavery by another name. Former slave owners were able to maintain favorable conditions while limiting their liability to unfavorable harvest outcomes.
The result of the inequality and inequity in sharecropping relationships left more Black farmers in debt come harvest end, to either the landowner or the local merchant who held a lien on the crop for supplies and equipment loaned throughout the season.
Despite an economic opportunity provided by emancipation from bondage, bondage found the Negro, still. The evil that sought to destroy the Negro farmer was not in the legislation or the rule of law. Neither could protect the Negro from the true sentiment of the White business owner/landowner.
The same is true today. Blacks will see their White employers forced by law to provide some relief to the bondage they experience as wage laborers. Whether it is $15/hr. or $20/hr., wage laborers will never earn enough to thrive, only enough to survive to satisfy their debt tomorrow.
With a mandated $15/hr. wage, like the White landowners of the South, employers will pull the levers of capitalism in order to compensate for lost revenue due to wage increases.
Employees will be expected to accept extensions to their responsibilities formally done by other employees or have their hours reduced to an untenable threshold. Employee benefits like health and dental insurance will be eliminated in order to sure up lost profit. On the consumer side of things, shortcuts in production and reductions in quality are par the course for recouping lost profit from a wage increase.
Reductions in hours, one of the easiest short-term solutions, drop the wage earner below the threshold for any benefits, while the employer simply hires more part-time employees to make up the difference in productivity. Employers have been doing this for years to wage laborers and their cronies in public office have been very supportive of continuing the practice of exploiting workers even if it means using a well-protected loophole. Even Ford, with his $5/day wage for every employee, imposed the exceptional expectation that laborers live in Ford-owned properties and abide by strict “American standards” of behavior. This arrangement made Ford the landlord and employer of his employees. Of the $5/day he paid his employees, $1 came back in rent and utility receipts.
What a $15/hr. minimum wage means to Black people is what all of history’s well-cloaked “opportunities” for the poor have always meant, the continued exploitation of the working class and continued wealth for the business owners. $15/hr. means more consumer spending at White-owned establishments and, if spending increases too much, the poor will be rewarded with inflation due to increased demand and decreased supply. $15/hr. will mean increased prices in stores, as direct labor is a part of COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) thus leading to an increase in wholesale prices, which normally leads to increased retail prices.
The wage laborer will see the correction for a nationwide minimum wage increase within weeks of receiving the bump in pay, possibly leaving them with less in their pocket than before the increase.
In order to combat the increasingly unfair contractual relationship proposed by White southern landowners, laborer unions started popping up all around the south.
Southern Tenant Farmers Union
One such union, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union grew to have over 300 offices across the country. STFU published a newspaper for its over 35,000 members and was racially integrated from the top down. One of many issues with representation through a labor union is that its primary tools are collective bargaining and strikes. Collective bargaining was at many times quite successful.
The STFU organized a massive strike in Cochran California to the delight of their members winning them a better contract and working conditions. Striking, on the other hand, was always a risky proposition for black farmers due to illegal stipulations in contracts and the threat of retaliation. In addition to the fact that Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers were at a disadvantage legally, the burden of proof always lay with Blacks to prove an injustice even existed.
White landowners and their political representatives were more acceptable as honest and ultimately more believable in court. The Black man was often fighting multiple fights at once, fights that a labor union was unable to assist with.
This Black experience is much the same today. Every time there is an uplifting opportunity for Black folk, White folk, business owners, land owners, and their political and legal representatives find a way to wrestle it from our grasp. All within the frame of the law.
A $15/hr. minimum wage will be irrelevant to the average Black family if the proper protective legislation doesn’t accompany it into law. A completely legal method of eroding Black progress has always made itself available after our triumphs, primarily because Black rights are debatable, uncertain, and insecure, and White rights are guaranteed by the Constitution.
Our progress in this country will always be second to and subject to partisan politics and whether or not we are a valuable pawn on the chessboard currently. Raising the minimum wage will prove ineffective in improving the quality of life for anyone if meaningful legislation isn’t enacted. Wage laborers need fortified protection from the quasi-legal business loopholes that land and business owners continue to use to block wage laborers from ever achieving anything that resembles the American Dream.