Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Yes, I am in favor of a minimum wage increase, but with conditions.

Food For Thought 3-9-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

After a couple e-mail exchanges with a gentleman earlier this week, I guess that once again I need to state my personal stand, and what I believe is the Chamber of Commerce’s stand on the minimum wage issue once again. It seems that some people don’t get it, aren’t really paying attention, or just choose to ignore the facts and slander people and organizations because it happens to suit their own purposes. I have seen letters or comments from several people now blaming the Chamber of Commerce because there hasn’t been a minimum wage increase in so long here in the Commonwealth. The problem is that in some of these cases, most of what the people have to say is on the mark and is true, but then they go dragging the Chamber of Commerce into their accusations and bad mouthing them just because they think it will make their message more popular. And this gentleman who wrote me said that I have always been against a minimum wage increase and that I am in bed with the fat cats and that I sicken him and should be ashamed of myself. He made it all sound quite dramatic in his e-mail, the problem was he wasn’t stating facts or acknowledging what I have always said about the topic. So because of him, and others who believe that ignorance is bliss, I will once again state my position on the issue for the record.

I am now, and always have been in favor of raising the minimum wage, and totally revamping the entire system. We have an outdated and ineffective minimum wage system here that actually favors contract workers over local hires. Our contract workers get full medical coverage with no deductions or co-pays, everything is 100% paid for. They are also given free housing or a housing allowance, free meals or a meal allowance and free transportation. Our local workers, U.S. citizens get the same pay as the contract workers in most cases, $3.05 at the bottom of the rung but yet with none of the benefits that the contract worker right next to them gets.

This is a discriminatory system that favors non-residents over residents. We have our politicians to thank for that, and that they haven’t been able to fix it in all these years at least giving our local workers as much as the non-residents are getting is a complete travesty. Our politicians simply haven’t had the will to take care of their own people, and yet we have continually voted them back into office. Why, I simply can’t figure out. They have failed all of us miserably, and have catered to the contract workers who can’t even vote for them. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at all really. And frankly this setup doesn’t really do much for the businesses either, as taking care of 100% of all medical bills whether work related or not can be very expensive. And the cost of pregnancies and deliveries for contract workers babies has had a huge impact on the profit and loss statements of many island companies.

It is my personal opinion that the minimum wage should come up to somewhere around $5 an hour right now and that all the burdensome benefits given to contract workers should be pulled off. Make it an even playing field and let local residents and contract workers all fight for the same wages and benefit packages. Yes, there are those businesses out there that have continued to pay local workers just slightly above the minimum wage while paying all those extra benefits to contract workers, and frankly I am, and have always been, appalled by them. That is deplorable that they would take advantage of local workers that way, even though our ridiculous laws allowed it. Have I made myself perfectly clear? I think our minimum wage is a travesty, and that we have not fixed this discriminatory system is horrible, but it is an indictment on the politicians, not on the Chamber or the business community. They are the ones responsible for passing the laws and fixing this problem, and so far they haven’t done it.

I do not speak officially for the Chamber, but yes I have been on the board of directors for the past 2 years, and therefore have a pretty good idea of what their mindset is on the issue as well. In all the meetings I have attended, I have never once heard anyone say they are opposed to a minimum wage increase. I have heard that they would like a Wage Review board put in place to make sure that the increases are something that can be handled and not drive them out of business. I have also heard them say that as the minimum wage goes up, the benefits afforded to contract workers must be pulled back or eliminated all together. They have given their position to the government and the politicians for years, and yet the politicians still have not moved on the issue.

Is the garment industry opposed to a hike in the minimum wage? Yes I believe they are. Have they lobbied to keep it low? I can’t say for sure, but I would be surprised if they hadn’t, since they claim if it goes up it will be the complete death of their industry. They have their point of view much the same as any other business, but that doesn’t mean you can go lumping all businesses and the garment industry into the same group and making broad sweeping accusations against all of them equally. I do believe there are quite a few businesses out there that want to see some way to keep what remains of the garment industry here for as long as we can though, since they realize how much the industry contributes to the governments tax base, and in spin off business. That is why many in the business sector have advocated for a tiered minimum wage system much like that currently employed in American Samoa. That would allow us to hang onto the garment industry for a while longer possibly while still raising the wage for local workers in all other segments of the business community.

There are several problems with making blanket statements and accusations, especially when they’re not true. First off, you lose credibility with anyone who happens to actually know the truth about the situation, since they realize you don’t bother checking your facts first before talking. Therefore if you actually had any valid points, they will most likely be disregarded now as well since you have no credibility. You may attract a few people by making such accusations and statements, but are they really the sort you want to associate with? Other people just as misinformed as you are, and those who don’t let the truth get in the way of a good, juicy accusation. And you need to keep in mind that you have completely lost the respect of those you have slandered, which can be a pretty big thing on such a small island.

Because my comments are public and are heard on the radio and posted on the Internet, I do get a fair amount of feedback from them, and it’s not always positive. That’s ok; I really don’t expect everyone to agree with me, differences of opinion are usually good and productive as long as it results in a discussion about the issues and some effort put into the thought process about the issues. I have had many people come up to me telling me that they didn’t necessarily agree with my stand on a particular issue, but that they are glad I talked about because it brought the issue out for discussion. That’s what it’s all about, trying to get the people to take ownership of the issues and make them put some thought into what is happening and why it is happening. I’m a big boy, I can handle a difference of opinion, and like I said, I believe it’s healthy. What I have a problem with is when people personalize it and make false accusations. If you want to tell me your opinion, fine, but let’s stick to the facts. And if you’re going to go accusing me of saying something or taking a particular stand on an issue, then at least be competent enough to go through my archives and make sure that what you are saying is true. All my commentaries are posted online at www.chamorro.com and the complete archives are there too. So if you say I have always said something, you might want to check first to see if what you are saying is indeed true. Unlike some of the politicians, I’m not ashamed to stand on my record and let people refer back to it. That is why I keep the archives up there. If I changed my opinion and stand on the issues, then it really wouldn’t be very smart to keep it in public like that as it would be very easy to discredit me. But when you are consistent and your message is always the same, you don’t have to worry about such things.

So let’s say it one more time just for those who are particular dense and may not have picked up on my stand on minimum wage so far. Yes, I am in favor in an increase of the CNMI minimum wage. I’m not sure we can handle a hike to the federal level at this point, especially if they increase it to $7.25 an hour, but I do believe we could handle something in the $5 an hour range, providing that the benefits to contract workers be reduced accordingly. I’ll be very honest here, if the minimum wage goes up that far, it will mean that we will have to cut back on our staff and lay people off. We simply don’t have the profit anymore to absorb that kind of an increase without cutting expenses, and the only expense left to cut is payroll. We are already paying all of our employees at least very close to the federal minimum wage as a starting point, but another $2 increase would be very difficult for us to handle, and we would have to cut accordingly. So be careful what you ask for, because you may not be ready to pay the price for it in the end.

But did you get it - were you listening? One more time just for the record, yes I am in favor of a minimum wage increase. Of course I completely expect another e-mail tomorrow asking why I am so opposed to an increase of the minimum wage and why I continue to side with the fat cats. Such is life in the public eye.

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

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My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM