Government’s New Role: Activist?


Much has been written in this column space about the ongoing reputational assault being waged against employers throughout the retail sector. Whether it is convenience stores, hotels, restaurants or grocery stores, the service sector is the subject of an unprecedented national debate over the nature of our jobs, our workers and our impact on the overall economy.

In fact, one of the most common phrases in the public dialogue right now is "income inequality," and that has become the mantra of the unions and their labor activist allies in the battle to change the nature of entry-level employment.

It is important for c-store operators and other employers to understand the distinction that the core of the “inequality” debate focuses not on the worker and their relative skill set, but on the workplace and its pay, benefit and promotion practices.

In eras past, similar debates focused on educational investment and vocational development, and the debate had been what kind and how much investment can we afford in order to train workers who are able to compete in the marketplace. In broader terms, the role of government was to provide training and educational opportunities, but the onus was on the worker to take advantage of those options, prove their value, and control as much as possible their own path to achieve their economic goals.

Call it shared responsibility. Call it accountability. Call it individual empowerment. Unfortunately, you can also call it a thing of the past. 

Those concepts and ideals have been replaced by a new set of principles that equate wages and benefits to an arbitrary level of personal need, with no correlation to the market value of the work performed or the relative skill set of the worker.

If you follow the national "Fight for 15" campaign that is raging across the country, you will find that those advocating for a $15 minimum wage couldn't care less that that the job at the drive-thru window isn't remotely worth $15 an hour (and polling data shows that a vast majority of the public agrees). In fact, minimum wage increases poll exceptionally high until you start to cross the $10-an-hour threshold, and support falls precipitously the higher you go.

Any guesses as to why the minimum wage establishment in D.C. is pushing for a seemingly arbitrary $10.10-an-hour national wage? Because that's as high as you can go before the bottom drops out on public support. Since it will be the general public, in their role as consumers, who absorb the associated cost increases from these wage mandates, their opinion is especially relevant and in this case, rational.

But I think in a broader sense, the role of government –- your government –- is the important lesson here and should inform how the industry manages its relationships with federal, state and local elected officials.

Criticizing the federal government is a universal hobby for all Americans, one of the few ties that bind us together. But in this case, you can’t yell at them for not leading on this issue. It’s just the direction they’re going that will likely be disturbing to employers.

On July 24, the U.S. Department of Labor staged an event calling attention to the five-year anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage was raised by leading a "Day of Action." The department asked stakeholders, workers and employers to show their support for increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by tweeting at 10:10 a.m. that morning, thus building a national echo chamber to pressure Congress into action.

Now, just to set the playing field here, this is an agency of the U.S. government essentially holding an online rally to appeal for passage of federal legislation. This rendered me speechless.

Since when do our federal bureaucrats get paid to essentially join and/or foment street-level protests? When did agencies decide they were empowered to become political activists? Has the Department of Veterans Affairs ever staged a peace rally? Has the Food and Drug Administration ever sponsored an “Eat Vegan” rally? Somehow, I misplaced my invitation to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's “Save the Whales” rally.

I guess there is no need for one arm of the federal government (the Internal Revenue Service) to police the lobbying activity of nonprofits and other unregistered entities if another arm of the government is simply going to do the lobbying for them.

This is some uncharted territory we are heading into. The Founding Fathers rightfully empowered us to petition our government, but I don’t think they ever dreamed the government would one day be leading petition drives itself. I can’t believe Jefferson, Madison and Jay ever intended that outcome.

For those that confront the public policy challenges facing the industry, the impact of the activist community is nothing new. Whether it's wages, benefits, obesity, alcohol or smoking, the activist-union-industrial complex has driven those issues to the doorstep of elected officials, regulators and the general public. It’s when those communities and the regulators share the same house that employers are not only uninvited to the cookouts, but they are also more likely to find themselves on the menu. 

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