For Democrats, lessons from Wilmerding
When George Westinghouse moved his air-brake company from Pittsburgh to Wilmerding — then a long stretch of Turtle Creek Valley farmland — he designed and built a model town and factory.
An industrial baron who never became a robber baron, he created the five-and-a-half-day workweek, giving his workers family time, and sold them company-built houses at cost. Until his death in 1914, he paid his workers above the going rate and provided health and disability benefits.
But his fairness and decency came with a price.
Financier J.P. Morgan, who wanted more profit for bosses and less pay for workers, saw Westinghouse's policies as weakness. When Westinghouse Electric, another venture by the “Gentle Genius,” required refinancing, Morgan conditioned the loan on a controlling interest in the company. He put an end to the ways of George Westinghouse, and greed made a comeback.
Greed has had its seasons in America, even becoming national policy, but the pendulum swings both ways. In a recent New York Times essay, “Our Constitution Wasn't Built for This,” Ganesh Sitaraman described the late-19th-century Gilded Age, when greed was out of control. “Populists and progressives responded by pushing for reforms that would tame the great concentrations of wealth and power that were corrupting government,” he wrote.
Later, greed resurged, helping to cause the Great Depression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed back. Among protective measures he enacted was the Fair Labor Standards Act, which addressed income inequality with minimum-wage and overtime-pay requirements. Through it all, the labor movement made steady progress, fighting for fair wages and benefits, the rights of working families.
But the unions have been slowed by false promises that employers would be more like Westinghouse and less like Morgan. And now, unregulated “shadow” finance and hedge funds are on top, and the Morgans of the world are back. There is more wealth in the hands of fewer Americans than ever, and less pay in the pockets of workers who actually create that wealth. As Business Insider recently reported, “The richest 10 percent of families are worth a combined $51 trillion, equal to 75 percent of total household wealth.”
If Democrats ever get their voice back, this bald greed must be their rallying cry. For too long, they have been distracted by the issues that divide us, losing track of the one issue that unites: a fair income for working families.
FDR's minimum wage, a lifesaver at the time, no longer provides a decent living. It is a victim of the Republican promise that, if the rich get richer, more money will trickle down to working families. That never happens. And overtime pay — time-and-a-half after 40 hours per week — has been scuttled by employers who use loopholes to avoid paying a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. They classify workers as management, pay them a flat salary instead of hourly, and work them like dogs.
By seizing their traditional role, Democrats might have a chance. They cannot preach. They simply have to listen to the voters and fight for what Americans need.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).