Marc Lamont Hill: Black folks suffer most without fair workweek protections | Opinion

Marc Lamont Hill, For the Inquirer

I grew up in North and West Philly, where I was taught, by my Uncle Bobbie, to do what's right — not because it's easy, but because it matters. It's why I named my business after him. It's why I know that treating working people with basic dignity by telling them when and how much they're going to work is common sense. And it's why I hope City Council passes Fair Workweek legislation that would do right by 130,000 working families in our city.

My Uncle Bobbie never had access to formal higher education, but he was committed to lifelong learning. His house introduced me to the world of critical analysis. Uncle Bobbie read every paper, magazine, and book that he could get his hands on — because learning how the world works teaches us about what is right and what needs to be done. I watched as Uncle Bobbie questioned everything, in hopes of changing things for the better. He challenged us to follow suit. It's why I committed my life to being an activist-scholar, struggling to produce new ideas that create justice on the ground for real people in real communities. It is also why, in my business, I make sure that my employees are guaranteed dignity, respect, and support.

We are living in a historical moment of disinvestment in our neighborhoods. Uncle Bobbie's Coffee & Books is a community space designed for sharing, building, learning, laughing, debating, eating, and building. It's a replication of Uncle Bobbie's house: a space where folks come together and know that there's mutual respect among everyone who walks through the doors — customers, employees, visitors, and myself.

Black business owners have less capital, less mentorship, and fewer resources than other entrepreneurs. Black bookstores, once a staple in our communities, are now few and far between. They are special because they approach their customers and staff with compassion, empathy, and a commitment to justice. Owning a small business isn't easy. My business model presumes that black people do read, that black people will support a black business, and that black people can support other black people by treating employees well.

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Uncle Bobbie's is true to its namesake because of the dignity and respect provided to my employees, who have helped make my dream of opening a black bookstore in Germantown a reality. My employees know when they'll work. I approve requests for time off. I pay them a living wage. I make sure that they have the security that they need to care for themselves, their families, and their communities. This costs me a little extra. I do it because it's what's right.

My employees get enough rest between shifts, so they're in a good mood when they come into work. My employees get plenty of time off to spend time with their families, so they're engaged while at work. They work regular, set shifts and know their schedules, so they can build relationships with Uncle Bobbie's regulars. When you combine those three things — employee satisfaction, engagement, and relationships — you create a unique space where people feel welcome.

In Philly, the majority of folks working in food service and retail are black. It's black folks who are suffering because schedules are constantly shifting. It's black folks who are called in to work at the last minute. It's black folks who are suffering when shifts are cut short and their paycheck isn't what they expected. And it's black folks who stand to benefit from the basic protections that the fair workweek bill provides.

If a new, small business in Germantown can provide basic protections for its employees, my Uncle Bobbie's wisdom has taught me that large corporations undoubtedly can, too. I don't have ultra-complex scheduling software at my disposal. I don't have lobbyists taking meetings on my behalf. I just have the values of my family, and the drive to do right by my employees and by the people in my community. A fair workweek is the least we can do.

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Marc Lamont Hill is the owner of Uncle Bobbie's Coffee & Books and a professor of Media Studies and Urban Education at Temple University. 

Posted: October 30, 2018 - 9:30 AM
Marc Lamont Hill, For the Inquirer