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Web Exclusive: Politics as Usual (Opinion)

February 27, 2011

Sitting through a House Labor Committee meeting last week, I had a Popeye moment. After listening to as much garbage as I could take, I muttered under my breath, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more.”
For several years now all we have been hearing about is the business sector boo-hooing about Rhode Island’s so-called hostile business climate. And for the same past few years we have watched the General Assembly, the governor’s office and other agencies of state government bending over backward to kiss the backsides of businesspeople and the wealthiest citizens of the state while at the same time whacking middle-class property tax payers, further beggaring the destitute and disabled and cutting off unionized workers’ benefits at the knees.
Nonetheless, rich people and businesses continue to whine and stamp their feet like spoiled children, threatening either to hold their breath and turn blue or move away because they think it onerous and odious that someone wants to make them pay their fair share to support the system that enabled them to become, as Kurt Vonnegut liked to put it, fabulously well-to-do.
Well they were at it again at that Labor Committee meeting last week.
Can you guess what the latest outrage is? Do you know what is the most recent example of this business-unfriendly state piling an absolutely unbearable burden on the backs of business and the (I chuckle every time I hear this phrase) “job creators”?
We make them pay their employees at the end of a week’s work.
You read that right.
The law that requires that hourly workers get a paycheck once a week was described by one business mouthpiece, Paul DeRoche, lobbyist for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, as one of the “regulations strangling them” that will keep companies from coming here.
The weekly paycheck was painted by speaker after speaker as some fossilized relic of the Industrial Age, like a car you have to hand-crank to start. Gary Ezovski, chairman of the SBA Economic Summit’s regulations committee called it “one of these stigmas that we carry” and wondered aloud “what does it say about us that it is still here?”
I think it says we still have left a teensy bit of consideration and respect for the low-wage workers who have to scrape and struggle to make ends meet at the end of every week – to be able to pay the rent or mortgage and put food on the table; to be able to keep the heat and lights on in the house and give their kids respectable clothes and shoes to go to school in. Low wage (and, increasingly, middle class) working people being able to put money away for their kids to go to college or to buy a home of their own one day? That American Dream is quickly becoming another fossilized relic of the Industrial Age. They are lucky they don’t have to hand-crank the engines of their cars to go to work every day.
It seems as though the business class and the captains of industry, along with their footservants in government, won’t be happy until we are back in the days of indentured servitude.
The bill that the Labor Committee was hearing, introduced by West Warwick Rep. Patricia Serpa, would allow businesses to scrap the practice of issuing weekly paychecks and to pay their hourly employees at the more leisurely pace of once every two weeks or twice a month. That means in some months that would otherwise have five weekly paydays, workers might get only two paychecks. Try making that work when you earn $8 or $9 an hour with few or no benefits.
If you draw a CEO’s salary, or have a six-figure income, yeah, you can make a paycheck stretch for two weeks or more.
But if you are, like many Rhode Islanders, one of those folks who just barely make it from one paycheck to the next, having to go two weeks will represent a real hardship. You need the money you worked for right now. You can’t afford to let it sit in the bank (along with the wages of all your co-workers) earning interest for your boss. The fact that it saves the corporation you work for one payroll expense every two weeks doesn’t get your bills paid.
It makes me wonder if, when she was campaigning last fall, Serpa climbed up to the second and third-floor tenements on Providence Street and other working-class neighborhoods in West Warwick telling the people there what a lousy idea it is for them to get paid once a week.
I wonder if Rep. Anastasia Williams, who co-sponsored the bill and called it “a way for us to cooperate with business,” told the low-income constituents in her district that this is how she was going to use her power as Chairwoman of the Labor Committee, to pass anti-worker legislation such as this.
As AFL-CIO President George Nee, speaking for the workers he represents, told the committee, “It’s our money. People went to work. They earned that money. Why should businesses hold that money back?”
Why indeed!
And please don’t try to feed me that bilge about how if we let rich people and corporations keep all the money that they are going to create jobs and give people raises. Horsehockey! It doesn’t happen.
Rather than create jobs with the money they save in payroll costs and the money they make on the interest of withholding employees’ wages for an extra week, they are just as likely to buy an automated machine that puts 4-6-8 or 10 people out of work. That is, if they don’t move the whole operation to Indonesia or China where they can drop all pretense of caring about their workers.
The rich got a massive, massive tax break from President George W. Bush that lasted eight or nine years and has now been extended for two more years by President Barack Obama. If all that trickle-down nonsense worked, the newspaper you are holding would be half filled with Help Wanted ads. Unemployment should be at -3 percent, especially in Rhode Island where we added on a flat tax for the uber-rich “job creators.” You would think that after having their pockets stuffed with all that cash, that the “job creators” would have created a job or two. But no, Rhode Island’s unemployment is at 10.9 percent and the U.S. unemployment rate isn’t far behind at 9.8.
The business-class crybabies are never going to be satisfied. It’s about time that government at the state and national level started to once again pay attention to the working-class and middle-class citizens who made America the great country it once was -- before the greedy upper class and the politicians they buy and sell ruined it for the rest of us.

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