Minimum Wage Rage

For two years, Santos Guerrero worked at the Grand D Sewing Factory in San Francisco. Guerrero sewed shirts, dresses and other clothes for Esprit, Macy's, JCPenney, and other big labels. The clothes looked more expensive than any she could buy for her family."I was in Macy's once with a friend from work," Guerrero remembered, "and we saw a nightgown that we had sewn in the shop. They were selling it for $300. We couldn't believe how much they were getting for it!" For sewing $300 nightgowns, Guerrero was earning California's minimum wage -- $4.25 an hour. When she was working 40-hour weeks, she would bring home $260 in her paycheck twice a month.Enter The Living Wage Initiative. Headed for November's state ballot, the measure would increase the minimum wage to $5 an hour in 1997, and to $5.75 an hour in 1998. In the last eight years, the cost of living has risen more than 25 percent while minimum wage stayed the same.In January, a coalition of labor and community organizations began circulating petitions to put the initiative before the California voters. The coalition includes AFL-CIO, California Council of Churches, community and advocacy groups like Equal Rights Advocates and the Congress of California Seniors."We want [people] to understand the human cost of low wages--their effect on people who are trapped by them," said Rose Fua, an attorney for Equal Rights Advocate. "They have to choose every day between food or rent, between clothes or a visit to the doctor."Establishing a minimum wage was originally intended to pull workers like Guerrero out of poverty. The law establishing the minimum wage was passed by the state Legislature in 1913 and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Hiram Johnson. The law set up the Industrial Welfare Commission, and in 1937, the Legislature charged it with conducting "a full review of the adequacy of the minimum wage at least once every two years."After the review, the commission, which consists of five members appointed by the governor, can decide to raise the minimum wage. The IWC has only recommended one increase in the last 14 years of Republican administrations. Inaction by the commission has led to a minimum wage that is at a 40-year low, taking inflation into account. To simply restore it to the value of its purchasing power of the late 1970s, it would have to go up to $6 an hour. The federal government poverty line for a family of three requires an hourly wage of $6.05. Businesses argue that if the minimum wage goes up, it would raise labor costs and employers would hire fewer workers -- an argument the commission is not supposed to consider, according to Richard Holober, who heads the Living Wage campaign for the California Labor Federation."Their mandate is to ensure that the wage is high enough to support a decent life, not to engage in arguments over how many jobs can be produced by keeping it low," Holober said. "And in any case, all the available studies show that raising the minimum wage is good for business and produces jobs." It would also help the 80 percent of minimum-wage earners earn a better living."I think you can legitimately ask if $5 and $5.75 is enough of an increase, if that's really a living wage," Fua said. "But we have to start somewhere. And if we can win this increase, it improves our chances to push it up further."


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