Small businesses and the rhetoric of “community”

In Olympia, the sanctity of small business prevails. The narrative holds that small businesses are community-oriented and less exploitative than their corporate competitors. Business owners are frequently lumped together with workers, consumers and even homeless people in composing an illusory “downtown community.” How do small businesses relate to other constituents in this “community?”

Claims that small businesses are less exploitative are demonstrably false. Data from the Quarterly Census on Employment and Wages shows that small businesses pay far lower wages than larger employers. Smaller firms also perform dismally in regards to employee benefits, with only a minority nationwide offering retirement and health plans, a LIMRA study suggests.

Working-class consumers and small businesses weren’t always seen as belonging to the same community. In the early 1900s, neighborhood shopkeepers were often viewed as price-gougers, profiting off the desperation of poor people in need of basic goods. Tensions periodically erupted in class struggle, resulting in protests and riots against high prices.

As downtown Olympia gentrifies, the prospect of altered market conditions will compel business owners to raise prices, actively harming the other elements of this “downtown community.” To cleanse downtown and attract real estate and commercial investment, homeless people are criminalized and expelled. Small businesses have participated in this anti-homeless assault, from supporting the Downtown Safety Team to advocating against more services downtown.

A “downtown community” doesn’t exist, but such rhetoric is effective in masking exploitation and exclusion perpetrated by small businesses – whether against downtown’s workers, consumers or homeless residents.

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