Tucson Almost 200 largely progressive business people were looking up at the dias for the opening session of the Social Venture Network where the topic was “Pioneering a Just Economy,” and I was wondering what in the world I was doing here? Melissa Bradley, the incoming chair of SVN, and a fellow Tides Foundation board member had asked me to help, and I couldn’t say no, and Meizhu Lui of United for a Fair Economy was doing the opening and background explanations of economic justice, so my lift was not as heavy, but I had the feeling I might still be in the wrong pew of a church where I didn’t have the faintest idea of what they believed.
I had thought that perhaps I had been invited to share some insights from the “business” of social change and economic justice, which is something I actually know a lot about. Reading the program though before going on stage, it seemed that we were there as “thought leaders,” which is certainly another thing indeed! The issues of economic justice, which was the topic at hand, are really so stark and clear to me that I was damned if I knew exactly what profound and new thing I might share with people who clearly had committed to do right on these issues long before they walked into this chicken dinner.
I found myself telling a story from my youth about an argument with one of my elders about the value of work. There is a simple truth that all of us know who are fortunate enough to have found work that we actually love. We often say, somewhat hyperbolically, that “we would work for free” if necessary because we love the job that much. Yet, there are jobs that are so abhorrent to us that we can not imagine any amount of money that someone could pay us to get us to do that work. This argument is at the heart of how we place value on work and lay the foundation for understanding economic justice issues as they drive wages particularly. In this particular argument as we bounced along the hypothetical ranges of wages, it took no time before my friend had inadvertently been forced to agree that a garbage man should in fact be paid much, much more than he was paid for the office job he had and enjoyed. My position was that if there were any justice there should be a premium paid on work that was vile, dangerous, or difficult that equalized the burden to the labor. All of these debates are sophomoric in many ways and the anger of my friend at finding himself on the losing side of this point is still vivid, but the experience still informs my view of living wages and other issues. If one can not be paid “justly” in the sense of “each to his labor,” then at least one should not be paid at a level that does not allow one to live decently, so this seems a simple proposition of economic justice that should be inarguable and a threshold way for a “thought leader” to engage a group of well intentioned business people.
They were nothing but kind and supportive, so at least perhaps I did not offend.
The first question from the crowd was hilarious. It turned out to be something more of a confession. A middle aged, balding guy jumped up and identified himself as Jerry Gorde, and said that I had hired him in the early 70’s to work in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He told the story of showing up as a “yippie” kid and that I had made him get a haircut and sent him off to work. After 3 months on the job with ACORN, where he described himself as failing miserably and having been paid about $200 for the work, he confessed that one day he simply disappeared without a word. He then went to California, did this and that, and several years later ended up back East, created a company called VATEX America, Inc. in Richmond, Virginia that became successful and recently went through an employee stock ownership conversion as he retired and the workers took over. He said that he had had two jobs in his life one with ACORN and one with VATEX. The work at ACORN was so hard he couldn’t do it, so he wanted his fellow network members to know that this business of economic justice is hard.
I came away impressed that this network of business people of all sizes and stripes was in fact adopting a priority around economic justice. There’s hope. I asked for their help in ACORN”s fights around the country on living wages and against predatory pricing and practices. They would be fun to work with I would bet.
Oh, and Jerry Gorde’s punch line was that he was going to repay ACORN for the wages that they had wasted on him and return that $200 with $1000.
Great, I’ll be looking for the check in the mail, but it sounds like brother Grode has already repaid ACORN and the experience he gained with us to his community and workforce many thousands of times over in the last more than 30 years, so I bet we’re already even.
October 13, 2006