Jason Walsh: A ‘Carol’ for Sonoma

Scrooge gives Cratchit a much-deserved living wage increase in this depiction by 19th century British book illustrator Arthur Rackham.


“Business? Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

– Marley’s ghost, “A Christmas Carol”

Late December: A time for year-end reflection, thoughts toward family, generosity of spirit -- and editorial juxtapositions between modern-day income inequality and the Dickensian-era London of “A Christmas Carol.”

Ah, what better moment for heart-tugging Sonoma Valley working poor analogies with Tiny Tim – god bless ‘em, every one.

But this year the timing is as felicitous as dancing the Roger de Coverley at ol’ Fezziwig’s. That’s because on Monday the Sonoma City Council voted to agendize a study session next spring to look into establishing a citywide minimum wage. The wage discussion was called for by Sonoma City Councilmember Amy Harrington, who argued that no meaningful solution to the city’s dire lack of affordable housing can be reached without a simultaneous consideration of wages. That the city still conforms to the state’s paltry $10 an hour minimum (set to raise 50 cents this January and ratchet up to $15 by 2023) virtually guarantees that the city’s lowest-paid workers won’t be enjoying their New Year’s constitutionals along Charles Van Damme Way any time soon. Or, within several miles in any direction, quite frankly.

Harrington reasoned that if Sonoma is committed to an economy based on tourism – i.e. an economy propped largely on the backs of service workers – it should also commit to a livable wage for those workers.

“We don’t want to have a tourist economy that has people cleaning rooms for $10 an hour and driving two hours each way to their families,” said Harrington. “Because that is wrong – it’s wrong, and we don’t have to stand for it.”

Harrington would have done well on one of the London borough councils circa 1843, when such “counting houses” as Scrooge & Marley were paying employees 15 shillings a week and scrimping bitterly on the wintertime office heating. It was wages like that which kept the Cratchits’ Christmas goose on the small side, and prevented their affording of life-saving healthcare for young Tim’s nasty case of rickets.

Many an economist has latched onto “A Christmas Carol” to assert various fiscal philosophies, with free market champions offering revisionist analyses of Scrooge’s position as job-creator and applauding Bob Cratchit’s yuletide toasting of his miserly boss as the “founder of the feast.” Others are more likely to side with Mrs. Cratchit’s assessment of that particular capitalist as “an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man.”

Nevertheless, the improved quality of life of the Cratchit family – and the recovery of their youngest from long-term disability – only comes via an increase in salary from Bob’s employer. While it took nothing short of divine providence – and not a municipal minimum wage mandate – to get Scrooge to see the light, few would deny that Bob’s modest boost in pay wasn’t a game changer for this lower-income brood.

And we have no doubt the shop-local Cratchits reinvested their humble raise back into the East End business sector – living wages are an economic benefit for entire communities, after all.

Amy Harrington should be commended for her economically justifiable and values-based stance on bottom-rung wages; it’s been a long time since anyone on the Council has argued so passionately on behalf of residents who aren’t as likely to vote, and certainly aren’t campaign contributors.

Come May, when the minimum wage discussion comes before the Council, Harrington’s reasoning will be confronted with such oft-used challenges as:

1.) The service industry already pays fair wages, well above the $10 minimum.

To which we say – fantastic! – then there should be zero opposition to raising the minimum wage.

Or 2.) Small businesses will have to cut jobs to cover the increase payroll wrought by a higher minimum wage.

To which we say – if a business model is dependent upon paying workers an economically unjust wage, perhaps it isn’t a business model that belongs in Sonoma.

But we won’t get ahead of ourselves, those debates will have their day soon enough. For now, it’s Christmas! Described in the book as, “A good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.”

“The only time I know of,” continued Dickens, “… when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave – and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

And with that – god bless us, fellow Sonoma passengers. Every one.

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