Deputy Labor Secretary Discusses Income Inequality at SEBA Event

Deputy Labor Secretary Chris LuChris Lu, the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Labor, visited SEBA this March to keynote the Elfenworks Center for Responsible Business’ conference on Business and the Challenges of Inequality.

Lu was joined by the Center’s Senior Research Jim Hawley for a fireside conversation in front of an audience of students, faculty, staff, alumni and visitors. Hawley and Lu discussed issues including an increase in the minimum wage, paid leave, employee ownership, and the impact of government regulation.

“Income inequality is the defining issue of our time,” Lu said. “It’s an issue that we’re starting to see bi-partisan consensus on. Upward mobility has been stifled, and to correct that, I believe the Labor Department has to be the department of opportunity.”

For the Deputy Secretary, the issue of upward mobility was personal. As a child of immigrant parents, he learned firsthand that being able to restore some reality to the quickly evaporating American Dream is a task of significant importance. As a public servant, he is emphasizing the role of government to re-train job seekers and raise the minimum wage.

Hawley led the discussion for half an hour before opening up the conversation to the audience. A business-savvy crowd sought the Deputy Secretary’s opinions on the new employee/employer relationships arising in the sharing economy, the importance of gender diversity, capping executive salaries and the specifics of new international trade agreements.

Panel Discussion and Inequality Workshops

Panel discussion on inequalityThe keynote address by Deputy Secretary Lu was preceded by a panel discussion on inequality and specialized workshops that examined different types of inequality in the business world.

The panelists included Brahm Ahmadi, a social entrepreneur working to build healthier and more equitable inner-city communities by creating an independent, local grocery store in marginalized areas; Ann Huff Stevens, dean of the Graduate School of Management at the University of California-Davis, who studies low-income workers and labor markets; and Fr. Thomas Massaro, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, who has written extensively about welfare reform and globalization. 

Like Lu, Fr. Massaro also referred to inequality as one of the key issues facing the future. “Inequality is like the weather,” Massaro said. “Everyone talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.”

Massaro advocated for a more holistic perspective, one where the economy works in service to the people, rather than people working in service to the economy.

Professor Stevens, after discussing three major challenges that inequality poses to businesses, stressed how important it is that businesses understand the facts about inequality and wage levels and how critical it is to re-integrate low-skilled workers back into the economy.

Ahmadi, on the other hand, used his time on the panel to give a firsthand account of the process undertaken to create the People’s Community Market. He discussed the continued challenges that have arisen while trying to integrate a fresh food retail business in the West Oakland community.

Following the completion of the panel discussion, all three experts fielded questions from the audience covering topics including the minimum wage and the difficulty educators face when trying to teach about inequality in business.

Inequality workshopsConference attendees also participated in workshops which were run by SEBA faculty and students. Small groups vigorously discussed the issues of sustainability, gender bias, creating actionable solutions, inequality and investing, and the role interfaith leadership can play in addressing religious inequality in the workplace.

SEBA Dean Zhan Li praised the conference, saying, “Social justice is the cornerstone of our college and Think Globally, Lead Responsibly is the mission of our school. With events like this, and with speakers and guests of this caliber, we’re furthering the goals of our school and helping to shape the dialog on important world issues.”

When asked for her impressions on the conference, executive director of the Elfenworks Center for Responsible Business Saroja Subrahmanyan said, "I am really pleased with the interest and support from the SMC community and friends for the Center's first annual conference. We hope to continue with our efforts to engage the community in a dialog on important socially responsible business issues."