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John Hazen White’s LOOKOUT: Taco and Taco Bell

Monday, January 27, 2014


John Hazen White

Sometimes life is so ironical you can’t make these things up. The name of my company, Taco (an acronym for the Thermal Appliance Company, our original name from the 1920s when my grandfather started the company), is often mispronounced, even here in Rhode Island. Instead of Tay-co, people say Ta-co, like the tortilla sandwich. It’s an innocent enough mispronunciation, and one that has prompted the creation of this corrective phrase:

Tacos are for eating…Taco is for heating.

Now here’s the irony. Several months ago a new building on Cranston Street, a block north of our building, began to go up. Once the shell was up it was obvious that this was going to be a retail outlet and, with a drive through window, one serving food. Finally came the signage and, lo and behold, what was it: none other than a Taco Bell. No sooner was that revealed then the phones at Taco began to ring about hiring at the Taco Bell

Taco and Taco Bell, just a block apart but a world apart in terms of wages and benefits paid to employees. Of course, that’s the difference between working in today’s advanced manufacturing as opposed to the fast food service industry. Taco Bell pays its employees at hourly wage minimums and provides few if any benefits below the managerial level. Certainly many of the hard working people who work there would prefer to work for a business providing good wages and benefits. In manufacturing, for example, workers make far beyond the minimum wage. I don’t think anyone has ever been paid at the minimum wage level at Taco since the minimum wage standard was established in 1938 at 25 cents an hour.

There’s a battle brewing across the country right now about the minimum wage and low paying jobs provided by some major companies. Walmart, which has been challenged over its employee policies for years, has been running ads showing presumably real Walmart associates, instead of actors, saying how great the company is to them. One of Taco Bell’s competitors, McDonald’s, has tripped over itself by advising its workers on how to scrimp and save to get by on the wages it pays. We’ve also learned that many minimum wage workers have to rely on government and community assistance to make ends meet. Companies that pay low wages have a responsibility not to force their employees to seek public aid to get by. In contrast, I don’t see protesters on the news carrying signs about low wages in American factories.

Living Wage, Education, and Training

With the economy still underperforming and jobs hard to come by, a number of states have raised their minimum wage levels beyond the federal level $7.25 an hour. Both Rhode and Massachusetts’ levels are at $8 currently. Rhode Island legislators may choose to push the Ocean State’s level to $9 starting next year. Expect to hear President Obama again call for a federal level of $10 in his State of the Union speech tonight, which Congress failed to act on last year.

Business owners’ attitude toward raising the minimum wage is usually negative and always predicts negative consequences for workers, which seldom materialize because, after all, it’s hard to run a business without people. But with workers in the streets protesting and stories surfacing of minimum wage workers on food stamps, attitudes are changing. Even a significant number of Republican voters now support raising the minimum wage.

All honest work, whatever its nature and at whatever level, is ennobling and serves a positive and needed function in any economy. Most people really do want to work and earn wages to pay for a living. All workers deserve a living wage so they can provide for their families and save for the future.

Those at the bottom ladder of the wage scale deserve a raise. But to better secure not only a living wage, but a good paying job requires education and training in today’s economy. We owe these things to all of our children. Not everyone needs a college education to do well in life either, but every worker needs the chance to train to advance. Most of the folks who labor at dead-end service sector jobs are stuck there because of a lack of training and education.

Hourly wage workers have nowhere else to go but up and our society needs to help them make that climb. Educational opportunities are a must, but then it takes individual self-motivation and perseverance to make the difference in one’s working life.


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