President Obama and congressional Democrats are hoping they can make political hay out of campaigning to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray wants to raise it to $15. And social-justice activists there say even that falls far too short. How right they are!

But if we are serious about addressing economic inequality and restoring social justice, then a minimum wage increase should be just the start. We also need to outlaw volunteering.

The corporate media have brainwashed Americans into thinking that volunteerism is a good thing. Maybe people wouldn’t think like that if we called it what it really is: working for nothing. Sixty million U.S. suckers put in nearly 8 billion hours last year doing this so-called “service work” for deep-pocketed churches, civic groups, PTAs, Little Leagues and animal shelters. Why should those fat cats get rich off the backs of the toiling and exploited masses?

Anybody who has ever done a stretch for a charitable cause knows just how hard it can be. Organizing a weekend camping trip for a dozen Cub Scouts makes the invasion of Normandy look like a game of musical chairs. Moving all the food and equipment, setting up the tents, cooking over a fire, keeping the boys from stabbing one another to death with sticks — it’s hot, sweaty, exhausting work. With mosquitoes to boot.

If Scouting asked somebody to do it for money, the organization would have to pay at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Even if somebody were willing to do the job for $5 an hour — for the experience or the résumé-padding or whatever — s/he couldn’t. It’s against the law. Well, then! If we don’t let someone work for $5 an hour, why do we let anybody work for $0 an hour? We’re a better country than that, people.

Now some are going to say there’s a difference between working for a for-profit corporation and a nonprofit corporation. Don’t you believe it. Nonprofits still have to obey other federal laws, don’t they? Can a nonprofit ignore occupational safety standards? Can it flout environmental rules? Of course not. So why do nonprofits get a free pass on wages for “volunteers”?

Besides, which part of the IRS code the organization files its taxes under makes no difference to the laborer putting in the hours. If you help build a two-story starter house for Ryland Homes, the seventh-largest homebuilder in the U.S., you’re guaranteed a minimum hourly wage. If you help build the exact same house for Habitat for Humanity, the 10th-largest homebuilder, you’re guaranteed squat. And squat doesn’t put groceries on the table.

You might also hear that charities and civic groups run on shoestring budgets. If they had to pay their volunteers minimum wage, they might be forced to automate certain processes, or even close up shop. Boo, hoo. A lot of small businesses spout the same color manure: Raising the minimum wage could create an incentive to replace people with machines or force them out of business. If we don’t listen to them, why should we listen to charities?

Some people are going to say volunteers like the work and agree to do it for free, so that makes the pay scale OK. Wrong! First of all, the premise is highly questionable. Ask your school’s PTA secretary how much he looks forward to writing the monthly newsletter. He probably got volun-told to do it when nobody else would. Anyway, just because volunteers agree to work for free doesn’t mean we should let them. Some people would agree to work for less than the minimum wage if we let them — but we don’t, do we?

You know what else we need to outlaw? Community-service requirements. Lots of high schools have them, on the theory that they teach “character” and “civic responsibility” and similar capitalist propaganda. By that logic, letting a teenager flip burgers at McDonald’s for three bucks an hour would teach him important skills like “responsibility” and “punctuality.” So what? If Joey Zitface wants to flip burgers, we demand that he get paid the minimum wage and not one penny less. Yet then we turn around and tell him he won’t get his diploma unless he puts in 25 hours clearing brush for the municipal park service absolutely free. It makes no sense.

Look, it’s really simple. If people aren’t allowed to work for $7.24 an hour, even if they want to, then they darn well shouldn’t be allowed to work for $0 an hour either. To quote America’s greatest president, Barack Obama, “It’s time to give America a raise.”

bhinkle@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6627 Twitter: @ABartonHinkle

Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.