Fight for $15′ is one answer to our ‘profits without prosperity’ tailspin- and will help the middle class

By Ralph C. Carmona- an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College and vice president of the Adjunct Faculty Chapter of the Maine State Employees Association. He can be contacted at:

When adjunct professors have to scrap for a living wage, it is time to fight for a secure middle class.

My city, Portland, like the state of Maine and America, faces an economic concentration of inequity that threatens our democracy. The nationwide drive for $15 fast-food wages, however, offers a path that might fundamentally make democracy more equitable and less volatile.

At a recent rally in New York, an African-American fast food worker said that this “Fight for $15” union effort is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement because it is about human dignity involving the poor and workers of color. It reflects a time when the Rev. Martin Luther King urged that union wages be central to civil rights and the 1964 March on Washington. His last days were spent marching with sanitation workers for better wages.

“I am a human being,” thundered a Puerto Rican immigrant home care worker at a Boston union rally in July. “Be a leader; go for it! Do it together; you are a union. If you don’t do it as friends, who will? My children are human beings. Like Martin Luther King, I gotta dream. And I will fight for that dream of $15 for you because we are all human beings!”

Quality work is not just about impoverished workers. As an adjunct professor at Southern Maine Community College, I see this issue negatively affecting part-time instructors.

A Munjoy Hill neighbor of mine was teaching five classes on three college campuses. At about $2,000 for a 16-week class, her pay is without health, retirement and decent wage benefits.

Like itinerant migrants, these instructors wait, often days before classes begin, to get work. On one occasion, when she learned she’d be limited to teaching one class, my neighbor avoided homelessness by picking deposit cans and bottles on the Eastern Promenade and working at a drive-in theater. This person has three college degrees.

America’s “new majority” of adjuncts among college professors have become academia’s fast-food workers. Not to be outdone in this changing economy, debt-burdened college graduates will face, if not unemployment, variable employment with unlivable wages. In 10 years, 70 percent of the new jobs created nationwide are expected to be low-wage and part-time.

So much for the conventional view that college degrees will mean better employment.

I benefited from a past when unions represented almost 40 percent of America’s private sector. Their presence persuaded non-union businesses to provide similar employee benefits. An executive for 30 years in banking and energy, I worked with employees who were as secure as civil servants.

A generation of industry deregulation and declining unionization, however, has wrought what the Harvard Business Review calls “profits without prosperity.” Executive pay and personnel cuts now undermine consumer interests and even public employment security.

Our economy is failing to share growing productivity with employees who work hard and play by the rules. Too many businesses ignore public needs in our socioeconomic and natural environment. We have abandoned both Adam Smith’s concern about “pernicious profits,” and our Founding Fathers’ desire for a public sharing of business to keep democracy alive and avoid concentrated wealth.

Wealth-based political influence makes today’s federal government tone deaf to Franklin Roosevelt’s belief that American progress requires “enough for those who have too little.” Yet the “Fight for $15” clarion call has rendered silent a unified business hostility – especially in booming urban areas like Portland. Many local business owners see quality work conditions as crucial to profits that generate real consumer demand.

At whatever level, minimum-wage baby-step increases offer promising door-openers to restoring a secure middle class. They are the stuff of union movements for wages that Pope Francis remarked are for “dignity and freedom to support family, educate children, praise God and develop human potential.”

Human dignity is what inspires this former business executive to help unionize Maine’s adjunct instructors. During the 1950s, unions provided an economic democracy of Maine millworkers’ middle-class benefits in an industrialized society. Those necessities are now vanishing in a new economy of unorganized poor and professional workers. Small wonder why present polling shows close to 60 percent support for unionization.

From 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Monday, the First Parish of Portland (425 Congress St.) will hold a panel forum on how efforts like “Fight for $15” could lead to lifting all employee boats in a rising tide of economic productivity. The alternative is a continued drowning of an unorganized American majority in an anti-democratic vortex of concentrated wealth.

This first appeared in the Portland Press Herald. View it HERE.

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