Labor’s voice needs to be heard

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There may be no better time than Labor Day Weekend to raise the issue of wage disparities between laborers and their administrators/managers/overseers. It is an age-old problem, but is seldom dealt with by those who have the power to make the change. The writer first realized his predicament as a laborer when he picked cotton for $18 – $20 a week while the plantation owners raked-in thousands. 

He first began publicly raising the issue when he served as faculty-senate president at Jackson State University (JSU). At that time, the top issue noted in his “state of the university” address each year was “administrative cost.” This was money allocated for the office of the university president and for academic administration. For at least 10 years, that category accounted for a significant portion of the university budget. Furthermore, as one drilled down, it was shown that the president, who taught absolutely no one, was paid more than the total salaries of six productive classroom professors. The disparities are even greater in the current budget. 

After he changed environments, serving on the board of trustees for the Jackson Public School District (JPS), he noted the same problem – excessive administrative cost. As a matter of fact, the superintendent, who taught no classes, was paid more than the average six or seven classroom teachers. 

As in the case of JSU, the chief administrator was surrounded by a corps of assistants who exerted far more energy protecting and defending their boss than performing essential work that would have otherwise gone undone. At one point while at JSU, we examined the roster and found that, over the years, more than a dozen positions had been created to carry out the work that had previously been done by one person, Vice President Lee E. Williams, and one secretary.

Had the excessive administrative cost issue been addressed, more money could have been available for more respectable teachers’ salaries. More money could have been available for classroom equipment and material. More money could have been available for scholarships. Perhaps, hitting closer to home for many readers, less money could have been demanded from taxpayers. Efforts to diminish administrative cost, however, fell short in both environments, primarily because too few outsiders were aware or upset enough to demand a change and too many insiders feared retaliation if they spoke up.

Laborers are always the ones who produce the goods or services while it is always management or the administrators who receive the rewards. The excuse often is that management is so highly compensated because it makes the decisions that enable productivity to occur. We have witnessed, however, that over the years and almost without exception, the particular manager under discussion is most often not that special and that any number of other workers could easily replace them. (During slavery for an example, the overseer was often a poorly educated white man; some plantation owners even used willing enslaved Black men as overseers.) The most outstanding qualities of many managers now and then were their willingness to be “hard drivers” of others and to do whatever they are told by the owner or ultimate administrator. 

Today, the salary problem may most clearly be seen in school districts and on university campuses. It, nevertheless, exists in municipal bureaucracies, in private companies, and virtually everywhere there is a body of laborers supervised by a cadre of managers/supervisors/overlords. In the private sector, union organizing is one of the historical avenues available to address the issue. When it is in the public domain, organizing, lobbying, and voting are strategies that are available.

In both cases, caring citizens need to be open to assist such abused laborers. Assisting them, on the one hand, would mean helping themselves because many of them are in the laboring class. On the other hand, assisting laborers can help advance social peace and save taxpayer money. Finally, helping to increase the volume of labor’s voice is the morally right thing to do because in the long run, it advances America’s social welfare and everybody’s human rights. 

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Labor’s voice needs to be heard

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
September 12, 2022