Taking Action on Minimum Wage




T

he
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. 


The
states aren’t taking this attack on their citizens’ living
standards lying down. 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 (DC, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Madison), the campaign
for decent wage standards has shifted the battleground to the state
level. 


Thirty-one
of the fifty 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 DC, 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
fourteen (Washington, Oregon, 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 (Massachusetts, California,
Connecticut, Hawaii, 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, 2 (Wyoming, 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, 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 4 passed
them in 2004, bringing the total to 123. But at least as big a factor
as this 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 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, 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 created
a minimum wage there, and activists are now pushing for the same
in Berkeley, Oakland, and Emeryville. Coalitions in Madison, Wisconsin
and Santa Fe, New Mexico 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 city-wide
minimum in Albuquerque. 



T

he
new focus 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. Senator
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 Senator 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.







 





David Swanson
was communications coordinator for ACORN from 2000 to 2003 and is
now media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association.