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My Turn: Working together is the way to build economic equality

  • WAITE



Friday, April 13, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of seven op-ed essays written by authors with local ties that will explore why inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity are bad for Franklin County and what the community can do about it.

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As Chuck Collins pointed out in his recent My Turn article, economic inequality has been increasing in the U.S. to such an extent that CEOs of major national firms receive over 300 times more than typical workers in their companies. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here in Franklin County and western Massachusetts we have businesses that have a different way of operating. PV Squared Solar, for example, has in their operating principals that the highest paid worker can be paid no more than 3 times that of the lowest paid worker. And this has not restricted their ability to find good workers or provide quality service or make a profit. They have grown from 4 employees to over 40 and continue getting more customers, while making a profit and giving back to the community.

Cooperatives — like PV Squared Solar, Artisan Beverage Cooperative, Real Pickles, Greenfield’s Market and River Valley Market — are all examples of profitable businesses that also care about their workers, their suppliers and their community. Other local businesses, like New England Natural Bakers and Ewing Controls, have converted from private ownership to employee ownership and continue to thrive. Moreover, co-ops and employee owned businesses are not likely to sell to absentee owners or move the jobs to low wage locations.

We have plenty of local privately-owned businesses that are good places to work and that care about the environment and community, too. Valley Steel Stamp Inc (VSS) is a manufacturing company in Greenfield that started with 2 people and now employs 50, and is well known for paying good wages and training their employees. Hillside Pizza has three profitable restaurants selling healthy food and has helped local groups raise half a million dollars through their fundraising program. Hope & Olive restaurant serves delicious food and drinks from many local farms and businesses and has helped to foster an environment of generosity and gratitude by holding “Free Soup and Games Nights,” along with a network of other restaurants, to collect funding for many worthy community groups.

As a consumer, investor, and voter, there are other ways all of us can support a more equitable economy.

Buy local: Each time we spend our money, we are voting for the kind of community and society we want. By doing a little research and asking a few questions, we can ensure that our spending is more in line with our values. Buying local keeps more money in our economy and benefits our community in many ways. But at the same time, you should get value for your money. Getting good value should include moral, ethical and environmental values, not just the lowest price. For example, when it comes to food, I think we need to adjust our thinking and stop asking why real food is expensive and start asking why processed food is so cheap.

Invest your values: Until recently, most opportunities for average investors were not very transparent about where the money was actually going. Now more people are asking where their money is invested. Many are divesting in companies whose values they do not share, such as fossil fuel companies or other unhealthy products and services. Now we have options, such as the Pioneer Valley Grows Investment Fund (PVGrows Fund) that invests in farm and food businesses in our region; Common Capital’s Community First Fund that provides loans to small businesses in the Pioneer Valley; and Co-op Power’s investments in locally-owned sustainable energy. Even moving your money from the large “too big to fail” banks to local community banks and credit unions strengthens our local economy and builds a more equitable society. Local banks reinvest in our regional economy. Not to mention, community banks and local investment opportunities do not cause recessions and do not need to be bailed out by taxpayers.

Citizenship: As voters in Massachusetts, we have a chance in November to vote for fair wages, fairer employment practices, and a higher tax on millionaires that will be invested in education and infrastructure. Providing higher wages and better benefits to employees will be less challenging for small businesses if all businesses in the state do it at the same time.

I am proud that Franklin County has the Community Development Corporation (FCCDC) that supports the development of good businesses, including many of those mentioned here, by offering business classes, one-on-one business assistance, networking opportunities, financing, incubation space and the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center. We encourage community members to support local businesses and we invite everyone to come celebrate entrepreneurs at the annual Entrepreneur of the Year event at Hawks & Reed in Greenfield on May 10. By all of us working together we can continue to build economic equality in our region.

Tomorrow: Voters can reduce economic insecurity.

John Waite is executive director of the Franklin County CDC, President of the PVGrows Investment Fund and spent 10 years prior to that doing economic development work in Africa and Central Asia. He is a member of the MA Food Policy Council, MA Farm to School Advisory Board, Franklin/Hampshire Regional Employment Board and Deerfield Planning Board. He is also a local shopper, investor, voter, son, husband, father, friend and human being.