‘They take the early bus … for us’ - Star-Advertiser Column

“We commit ourselves to stand with the janitors who have to strike to get a dollar more an hour, to stand with hotel workers who work every day with no health care. … It’s about airport security workers, cooks at schools, farm workers, chicken plant workers … cab drivers … ” One might think these words were spoken today in recognition of essential workers in COVID-era 2021 Hawaii. In fact, this declaration is civil rights veteran Jesse Jackson’s soulful cri de coeur delivered to the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. Jackson well knew that solidarity is a verb requiring political action against structures of inequality.


But Jackson’s evocative aside during that speech is often left out. “They take the early bus … for us.” His words honor the dignity of taken for- granted workers, and provide an urgent mandate for us today. They offer a moral foundation for “building back, better” as we lurch out of a dark time. Our political leaders must work to better reward the social and economic contributions of work done by most Hawaii workers: hairdressers, retail and food employees, hotel staffers, food processors, house cleaners, hotline responders (joining those referenced by Jackson).


As we reconstruct our shattered economy, we must inspire a robust new commitment to the common good. One based on a critical evaluation of the benefits and burdens we share (un)equally. One which answers the question, “What do we owe one another as citizens?”


The moral and civic renewal we need requires a radical reframing of the terms of economic debate — our economic foundations must be centered around people — not markets. Hawaii Chamber of Commerce CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara’s attack on proposals to raise Hawaii’s minimum wage corrupts efforts to eradicate economic inequality (“Time not right for $17 minimum wage,” Star-Advertiser, Island Voices, Jan. 24). Her commentary is a perfect articulation of the moral limits of markets. And worse, she pits workers against struggling small businesses.


She writes it was “shocking” to learn of the efforts of Living Wage Hawaii to demand the Legislature make good on its promised increase. A justified and long-overdue compensation, given the hardships of Hawaii’s exorbitant cost of living. We in 2021 are enduring the most catastrophic wealth gap in the history of the world. Menor-McNamara is silent (evidently not shocked), however, on the obscene enrichment of billionaires during COVID. Yet she asserts that “Now is not the time” for Hawaii workers to have a living wage.


The hubris and arrogance of the Chamber of Commerce to dictate the timelines for justice for working-class citizens is here normalized. It stands as an indictment of the very predatory capitalism it represents.


Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 demonstrating for fair wages alongside sanitation workers. In King’s 1963 masterpiece “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he powerfully decried the timetables for Black freedom insisted on by his white jailers. “The word ‘wait’ rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity … this ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’” And so it has been here in the islands, as a look at our own history of labor strife shows. It’s never been “time” for fair wages.


I hope Hawaii’s hyper-emphasis on STEM/tech learning has not suffocated the rich resources of the Humanities. Critical thinking, active empathy, and intelligent resistance to the power of blind tradition and authority, cultivate informed citizens.


As we go forward, I hope that “we” will not buy the side hustles of tech elites, “thought leaders” and “changemakers.” I hope that we allow more egalitarian languages of human progress into our difficult conversations. Languages that allow us to build strong, responsive, democratic institutions. Institutions that bind all of us in a context of equality. That includes small businesses and their at-risk employees. We will not get that from the Chamber’s privatized distortions of society, which only diminish our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate.


Nancie Caraway, Ph.D., of Manoa, is an advocate, writer and academic; she is a former first lady of the state of Hawaii.

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