Are Living Wage Campaigns Worth the Effort?
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This piece was originally published by Labor Notes. Come to the Labor Notes conference May 4-6 in Chicago, the biggest gathering of grassroots labor activists and all-around troublemakers out there! More than 100 workshops and meetings to ‘put the movement back in the labor movement.’
Almost 20 years ago a “living wage” campaign by pastors and union organizers in Baltimore caught the attention of activists around the country. It looked like a way to address the fact that so many people were working but were still poor.
Living wage activists have accomplished a lot since then, winning more than 125 living wage ordinances in cities and counties, three city minimum wages, and state and federal minimum wage increases. Eight states have indexed their minimum wage to inflation because of activist pressure, and campaigns to raise and index state minimums are underway in 10 more states.
Activists also created coalitions that have helped unions organize and win better contracts. They’ve supported city and state campaigns for paid sick days and influenced the debate about who should benefit from economic development.
Yet the number of workers earning poverty wages remains as high as ever. A quarter of all workers in 2009—about 35 million people—earned less than the hourly wage needed to bring a full-time worker to the federal poverty line for a family of four.
The problem has many roots. Living wage ordinances cover a relatively small number of workers, because a typical ordinance applies only to firms that receive contracts or economic development assistance from a city government.
And even the “living wages” the movement has won are not enough to bring a worker out of poverty, especially since many low-wage workers are involuntarily part-time.
To meet the federal poverty line for a four-person family, a worker would need to earn $10.63 an hour and work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. But this official poverty line—$22,113 a year for a family of four—grossly underestimates the real cost of living.
The living wages won in the last 20 years vary from $9.50 to $17.78 (if health benefits are not provided) and include no guarantee of hours.
Despite the weaknesses, the wages won have been significant for those affected, who’ve seen raises during a time when wages were mostly stagnant. But more important than dollars gained have been the new coalitions and strengthened alliances built in many cities, building a foundation for future social movements.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
The average living wage campaign takes several years, with time spent building coalitions, determining a target wage, lobbying city councilors, holding rallies, working with the media, talking to workers, and negotiating many compromises to reach a final ordinance.
After all that, some ordinances in small cities may cover only a few dozen workers. (Larger ones can cover tens of thousands.)
But living wage activists never saw the ordinances themselves as the solution to poverty. Most saw the campaigns as a way to assist unionization efforts and contract campaigns, or to grow community and faith-based organizations.
So living wage ordinances have often included language to assist organizing.
For example, activists have been able to mandate that cities give priority to developers who don’t violate labor laws. Language on “access” gives unions the ability to visit the workplace. Non-retaliation can protect workers who talk about living wages or rights on the job, and get them their jobs back if they’re fired for organizing.
The laws sometimes forestall contracting out, since private companies lose interest in city contracts where they can’t cut wages.