When the nation’s first living-wage ordinance passed in Baltimore in 1994–a modest measure that improved the earnings of just 1,500 workers–few could have predicted that a powerful national movement would emerge in its wake. In the ensuing seven years, more than sixty municipalities, pushed by coalitions of local activists, have passed living-wage laws, and some seventy-two campaigns are rolling forward around the country, from New York City to the right-to-work South, not to mention at Harvard University, where students concluded a high-profile living-wage sit-in in May.
It’s an increasingly sophisticated movement that uses a tool chest of tactics, from lobbying to postcard campaigns to economic impact studies, to win its goals. Activists putting together new campaigns need not reinvent the wheel: Jen Kern, of the Living Wage Resource Center, established by ACORN, travels regularly to offer advice, gleaned from ACORN living-wage fights, to fledgling campaigns, while organizers from across the country traveled to Los Angeles in early June for discussions with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), considered by many to be one of the nation’s state-of-the-art economic justice organizations. LAANE helped pass one of the country’s most comprehensive local living-wage laws in 1997, launched the cutting-edge ordinance passed in Santa Monica in May and was part of a landmark deal, also concluded in May, with the developers of the mammoth Staples Center expansion [see sidebar, “Unite and Conquer.”].
Something as seemingly tame as a local ordinance would hardly seem to stoke the fires of political passion, especially since the majority of living-wage measures are so limited. Most apply only to companies that receive city subsidies and/or contracts, requiring them to pay employees a wage that lifts a family above the poverty level. Even in big cities, that can mean small numbers–roughly 7,000 in Los Angeles, a city of 3.7 million; 30,000 in San Francisco, where an ambitious ordinance was signed into law by Mayor Willie Brown in September 2000. In smaller towns, the numbers are even lower. In Lexington, Kentucky, proponents hope to cover about 150 sanitation workers. Nationally, living-wage legislation may affect as few as 100,000 workers overall.
But paradoxically, the limits of the ordinances are part of their strength as an organizing vehicle–attaching strings to public moneys is a more politically palatable first step than more complex demands, and the few campaigns that have won more ambitious measures built up to those victories from a modest beginning. The organizing possibilities are what makes the living-wage movement so promising: One of the first rules of good organizing is to set a winnable goal, with the idea that the first victory builds an organization and leads to others.
“The whole idea of the living wage is in the culture now,” says Robert Pollin of the department of economics and the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts. The community-based living-wage movement springs from the same source as the campus-based antisweatshop movement. “What people are starting to see is that it’s the same movement–it’s about living standards for workers,” says Pollin. The living wage concept relies on a simple moral imperative: People who work full time should not be forced to survive at or below the poverty line.
It’s a tough idea to dismiss. City officials in LA were aghast to learn in the course of the living-wage campaign there that the company with the contract to clean the gleaming landmark Central Library downtown paid its janitors minimum wage without health insurance or paid sick days. An anecdote from a Virginia living-wage organizer may be even more telling–when he asked a worker what he was going to do with the extra money after Alexandria passed an ordinance, the man replied, “Quit my third job.”