A Livable Minimum Wage
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If George W. Bush finishes a second term and avoids adjusting the federal minimum wage, we will have completed an 11-year record stretch without any adjustment. The previous record of nine years was brought to us by Ronald Reagan. The current federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour is over 40 percent below the 1968 level adjusted for inflation. A full-time worker taking no vacation or holidays and earning the federal minimum wage earns 55 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of four and a much smaller percentage of what it takes to actually pay the rent and basic living expenses in most parts of the country. Such a worker qualifies for much of what remains of public support and assistance, placing the burden on taxpayers to pick up where employers fail to pay a living wage.
Grassroots organizations have responded to the static minimum wage by focusing on the state level. After winning living wage laws in 123 cities and counties (laws that mandate higher minimums for certain categories of workers) and city-wide minimum wage hikes covering all workers in four cities (D.C., Santa Fe, San Francisco and Madison), the campaign for decent wage standards has shifted the battleground to the state level.
Thirty-one states, plus the District of Columbia, have either set a minimum wage higher than the federal level of $5.15 per hour, or have had bills introduced in their legislatures this year that would do so.
Fourteen of these, plus D.C., have already created minimum wage levels higher than the federal, or – in the case of Florida – have put the law on the books though it has yet to take effect. Three of these 14 (Washington, Oregon and Florida) have indexed their minimum wage levels to automatically increase each year with the cost of living, thus eliminating the need for an annual campaign to prevent the minimum wage from losing value. Five of the fourteen (Massachusets, California, Connecticut, Hawaii and Vermont) also have bills in their legislatures that would further increase their minimum wages.
Of the 17 states that do not yet have higher minimum wages but have had bills introduced this year, two (Wyoming and North Dakota) have already seen those bills defeated. Bills in some other states have a good chance of succeeding. Three that are almost certain to fail (Arizona, Ohio and Michigan) are in states where activist campaigns led by the community group ACORN along with labor and other allies, are fully committed to gathering the signatures needed to force the issue onto a ballot initiative in 2006. The voters in Nevada, like those in Florida, passed a minimum wage increase by ballot initiative last November which included indexing to the cost of living, but initiatives in Nevada must be passed twice. The second vote, which is expected to succeed, will come in 2006.
The movement for a fair wage has moved to the state level in part because no one expects action out of Washington as long as Republicans control the Congress and the White House. Another factor is the success of living wage efforts at the local level. There aren't very many big cities left to win a living wage ordinance in. Only four passed them in 2004, bringing the total to 123. But at least as big a factor as these is the approach that the opposition has taken. As a result chiefly of lobbying and campaign contributions from hotels and restaurants, and the "think tanks" they fund, eight states have banned city-level minimum wage laws. It's nine if we include Missouri, which is in dispute. The other eight are Arizona, Louisiana, Colorado and Texas, plus two that also ban local living wage laws (Utah, South Carolina) and two that at least have state-level laws, making the ban on local laws less damaging, (Oregon and Florida).
Before focusing so heavily on the state level, the living wage movement took the step three years ago of campaigning for city-wide minimums. After a campaign led by ACORN and SEIU Local 100 passed an initiative to create a minimum wage for New Orleans, the Louisiana Supreme Court threw it out. So the living wage coalition there began working on state legislation. But other cities picked up where New Orleans had shown the way. An ACORN-led campaign in San Francisco has just created a minimum wage there, and activists are now pushing for the same in Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville. Coalitions in Madison, Wis., and Santa Fe, N.M., have also won city-wide minimums. The opposition in New Mexico is attempting to eliminate the Santa Fe ordinance at the state level by banning all local minimum wage laws. Labor and community groups, including ACORN, are fighting that effort at the state level while simultaneously campaigning for a citywide minimum in Albuquerque.
The new focus on the state level includes an effort to make state minimum wages as lasting as most living wage ordinances, by indexing them to the cost of living. Indexing is a goal of state campaigns in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland, among other states, according to Jen Kern, Director of ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center.
The state-level fight also allows the expansion of decent wage levels to more "red states." Nevada voters last November chose both the most anti-labor president ever to occupy the White House and an increase in the state minimum wage. The map that accompanies this article is more encouraging than the typical "blue state" map, in that it includes states with strong economic liberalism even if they may be afflicted with cultural conservatism.
There are signs that leaders in the Democratic Party are noticing. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who has introduced a bill that would raise the federal minimum to $7.25 by 2007, will speak at ACORN's upcoming annual legislative conference about the need to win higher minimum wages at the state level. And former Sen. John Edwards recently met with ACORN and committed to working to support these state campaigns. If these efforts result in a distinct message for the Democratic Party as the party that can see beyond the selfish interests of robber barons, the living-wage movement might just jump to the national level. And so might the Democratic Party.
David Swanson was communications coordinator for ACORN from 2000 to 2003 and is now media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association.