Over the past ten years, a host of scrappy grassroots campaigns across the country have successfully pushed through living-wage ordinances in 112 cities and counties. The individual wins are significant, but they add up to a big-picture victory, too–the expression “living wage” has seeped into the national discourse, along with the notion that working families shouldn’t have to rely on public assistance or private charity to make it from month to month.
Yet the federal minimum wage remains stalled for the eighth year in a row at $5.15 an hour–a shocking $10,712 annually for fifty-two weeks of full-time work. This, of course, at the same time the Bush Administration unblushingly escorts the wealthiest Americans onto the tax-break gravy train.
“Certainly $5.15 an hour is not a living wage,” scoffs Robert Pollin, economics professor at the University of Massachusetts and one of the nation’s leading experts on the economics of living-wage law. If the minimum wage had been raised with inflation and the productivity rate since 1968, when the minimum wage was at its peak, Pollin says, it would be $14.50 an hour. Activists have long recognized the stalemate at the federal level that has arrested the minimum wage at subpar standards, and the living wage was an attempt to remedy that.
Local living-wage laws may have moral power, but they are limited in actual scope. Early living-wage efforts pegged the wage rate around a modest $7.50 an hour and raised the pay of a relatively small number of workers–those employed by companies holding contracts with a city or that receive municipal subsidies. Workers who toil in notoriously low-wage private-sector jobs–filling orders at Micky D’s or stocking shelves at the local big-box store–haven’t been in on the boost.
Fair-wage activists have been well aware of these shortcomings. As the living-wage movement marks its tenth year, organizers are looking to cast a wider net and cover greater numbers of employees with each new measure. The ultimate hope is to use local political openings to exert upward pressure on wages. “With the first generation of living-wage laws, they learned how to do it, how to set the terms of the debate,” says Pollin. “Now they’re ready for the next step.”
That next step is a push for minimum-wage laws that affect all (or most) low-wage workers in a given city. In 2003 activists in Santa Fe won a law requiring nearly all employers to pay at least $8.50 an hour; in San Francisco, the movement won a living-wage law affecting all employers with more than ten workers. Madison, Wisconsin, followed suit this year, albeit at a lower rate, when the City Council there passed a minimum wage starting at $5.76, set to phase up to $7.75 in a city with a somewhat lower cost of living. San Francisco’s new ordinance affects some 50,000 workers (compared with 12,000 under a previous living-wage ordinance there); while Santa Fe’s covers 30,000 and Madison’s 17,200.
Washington, DC, was the first city to pass a minimum wage, back in 1994 when the living-wage movement was just taking flight. The District pegged the local minimum at $1 an hour above the federal level, where it remains.
Then ACORN New Orleans launched a six-year campaign in 1996, which culminated in a minimum-wage ordinance that set earnings in the Big Easy at $6.15 an hour in 2002. Louisiana has no minimum-wage law on the books, and the measure was designed to directly benefit some 50,000 workers, many of whom are the backbone of New Orleans’s tourist industry. The victory swiftly crumbled as the legislature, urged on by business interests, overrode local sentiment (some 65 percent of voters approved the initiative) and passed a state law that banned Louisiana municipalities from establishing their own wage levels–a legal demolition of the New Orleans measure.