Saturday, September 06, 2008

A Boss is Still a Boss

NOTE: During my first few months in Gainesville, I worked at a "mom and pop" grocery store called Ward's Supermarket. Though a long-standing Gainesville institution, the bosses there are pretty tyrannical and I was happy to leave at the end of the summer. I wrote and published the below essay anonymously, during my employment at Ward's, in order to stimulate some much-needed conversation amongst area Leftists on the supposed virtues of "buying local."

In the May/June Iguana, Kevin Bond makes a good case for buying local. Research by Civic Economics—an economic analysis and strategic planning consultancy—has documented the tangible economic benefits of buying local in a variety of communities throughout the U.S. Dollars spent with locally-owned businesses tend to circulate through our economy longer than, for instance, shopping at Wal-Mart, which sends a hefty cut of each customer’s dollar to its shareholders’ pockets elsewhere. Moreover, smaller, non-chain restaurants are able to utilize more flexible menus which allow for a wider selection of in-season and locally grown food. Economic arguments aside however, as someone who has spent the better part of their life working for the “mom and pop” establishments Mr. Bond extols, I feel the need to refine his argument.

There is nothing inherent in locally-owned businesses which bestows them with “strong concerns for environmental and sustainability issues…and for issues of globalization…”, nor will these businesses necessarily “serve us socially and environmentally responsible goods and services.” I applaud those local businesses which do strive to meet these criteria, but I have also worked for plenty which exemplify the polar opposite. In many of my jobs at “mom and pop” businesses, including the one where I currently work, I have witnessed gross violations of environmental responsibility, worker safety, and basic human dignity. There are countless small business owners and managers who differ from the most truculent corporate CEO in opportunity only; given the chance, many of them would gladly take their exploitation to the global scale.

Further, since small businesses are more likely to avoid the scrutiny of large regulatory agencies or citizen watchdog groups, they frequently have less incentive to pay attention to issues such as discrimination, pollution, and workplace safety. Yet these are issues which larger companies can scarcely afford to ignore—just ask Publix, which settled a class action lawsuit for gender discrimination back in ‘97. The settlement resulted in damages of tens of millions of dollars, as well as a significant restructuring of the company’s Human Resources Department. Meanwhile, the blatant yet tolerated sexual harassment by managers at my current job continues unabated.

And finally, when it comes to the service industry, regardless of whether we’re talking about a corporate chain or a locally-owned business, very few workers are actually being paid a living wage. Many of these workers are then trapped in a cycle of poverty and forced to shop wherever they can find the lowest prices—locally-owned or otherwise. Therefore, building strong community organizations and ethics which promote environmental stewardship while amplifying the voices of working people and aggressively supporting their rights is at least as important as buying local. Otherwise we are likely to end up with nothing more than a polluted community and a local economy dominated by petty thugs and wannabe tyrants.

If locally-owned businesses have an advantage over corporate chains with regard to environmental and social justice, it’s that the people who make such decisions are our neighbors—not faceless bureaucrats in a corporate headquarters far, far away. Since we often know where they live, work, and recreate, local managers and business owners can more easily be held accountable for their actions. But this advantage only means something if we, the local consumers, capitalize on it. There are some encouraging examples that strong consumer preference partnered with business acumen can make a positive difference for our health and the environment. Witness the rise of the natural foods movement, once solely populated by low-to-the-ground independent stores who were able to respond to human needs and a growing market much quicker than the corporate behemoths; ditto for much of the green products industry. Whether customer demand can spark a similar revolution in favor of workers’ rights and a just economy, however, remains to be seen. The “fair trade” movement has some interesting prospects; but does our sense of solidarity extend throughout the entirety of the supply chain—from the peasant farmer who grows our coffee to the worker who stocks it on the shelves or the barista who brews it?

So the next time you’re patronizing your favorite locally-owned business, pondering where the item you’re about to purchase was produced, I hope you’ll consider a few additional questions:
*What is a living wage for the Gainesville area?
*Are workers in this establishment paid a living wage, treated with respect, and allowed to organize for their collective self-interest if they so choose?
*What recourse exists in our community for workers who are not being treated fairly in the workplace?

If you find that you don’t know the answers to these questions, try asking the person who’s serving you. Such conversations could go a long way in giving our community the “unique, vibrant, and sustainable” local economy that Mr. Bond, and all of us, would like to see.


Oso Strange said...

Yep. Well said.

Diane Gow McDilda said...

Yes, well said Jason. I have also worked at very large corporate firms as well as very small, locally-owned professional companies.

In moving to a smaller company, not only did I notice a lack of sophistication in operation (limited tools available to employees, ridiculous use of funds, etc.) but also witnessed much more of a "boys club" atmosphere.

When the country as a whole has implemented efforts to reduce "bullying" it can be alive and well in small businesses.