Minimum Security

Minimum Security

Seeing the limits of living-wage laws, activists seek a raise for all workers.


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.

So far, the newest measures have been safe from this type of assault. Neither New Mexico nor California has pre-emptive laws in place, and state legislatures appear unlikely to pass them in the near future, while Wisconsin’s Democratic governor vetoed a similar measure promoted by a Republican-dominated legislature.

Wade Rathke, the founder and chief organizer of ACORN, and an optimist even after the legal defeat in Louisiana in 2002, sees the city-level minimum wage as a clever end run around Washington gridlock. “You’re starting to see some real traction for city minimum-wage laws,” Rathke says, and points to the Bay Area as an example of the local measures’ potential. Now that San Francisco has a minimum wage, he says, cities adjacent to San Francisco can pass similar measures and set a new, higher wage floor across an entire region. Indeed, Bay Area activists are talking about moving beyond San Francisco to win a minimum-wage “trifecta,” including Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville.

The recent minimum-wage fights in Santa Fe, Madison and San Francisco differed significantly in battlefield terrain and tactics, and all face different opposition tactics.

In Santa Fe, a city of 62,200 with a large low-wage tourist industry and high cost of living, a tight network of labor and community activists, the Santa Fe Living Wage Network, spearheaded the movement, which focused on the City Council. A former councilmember initiated the proposal after a union grocery store where he worked closed down and reopened non-union. Phone campaigns and delegations, along with a local newspaper ad with more than 1,500 endorsements, put the squeeze on pivotal wavering councilors. The local Roman Catholic diocese in this heavily Catholic city bought its own ad and distributed flyers at Sunday mass, while labor stepped in with staff and phones. The opposition, the hotel and restaurant interests, lacked the force and numbers of the proponents. The vote in favor, in February 2003, was 7 to 1.

Unlike in Santa Fe, the law in San Francisco was passed via ballot measure. The campaign to collect 26,000 qualifying signatures in two weeks gave the measure momentum, says John Eller, the head organizer there for ACORN, and so did the 2003 mayoral primary (in which the centrist Democrat, Gavin Newsom, was pressured into supporting it by a field of more progressive candidates, including Green Matt Gonzalez, who warmly embraced the initiative). The two major papers editorialized against the minimum wage, but other than that, the opposition lay relatively low. Even big businesses with a large stake in the fight, McDonald’s and Burger King, refrained from deep-pocket intervention, says longtime Bay Area activist Randy Shaw, author of The Activist’s Handbook. The local restaurants are franchises, and any aggressive action by their corporate parents in such a politicized community would have run the risk of backlash. Unlike in Santa Fe, most San Francisco unions initially hung back, fearing the measure couldn’t pass, and financial support from the community was anemic; but key resources came from a local businessman, Barry Hermanson, who not only financed a study to determine the potential costs to local businesses (which, at the $8.50-an-hour rate, were negligible) but bankrolled the signature drive and the campaign itself.

In Madison the living-wage effort began as a ballot campaign but morphed into a City Council-focused push, reports Austin King, himself an alderperson and a member of the Madison Fair Wage Campaign. King explains that with the Council as a field of engagement, “they can’t out-research us, they can’t out-data us–but they could outspend us in a referendum.” The seven-month fight featured a couple of cliffhanger moments, one when Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle appeared ready to sign a pre-emptive measure that would have nullified anything passed in Madison, and another just days before the vote, in which the mayor appeared poised to settle for a watered-down version of the ordinance–but the fair-wage supporters managed to hold the line through grassroots e-mail and phone campaigns.

Neither the fledgling Madison law nor the one in San Francisco has been legally challenged, although San Francisco could have been negatively affected by a court case just up the road. Cintas Corporation, which holds a contract to clean city uniforms for the city of Hayward, faced a lawsuit by workers claiming back wages under Hayward’s living-wage law. Fortunately for the workers, a judge refused to dismiss their suit and affirmed the rights of cities to adopt local living-wage laws, in a decision on May 21, 2004.

But the Santa Fe measure faces a lawsuit by several plaintiffs, among them a group called New Mexicans for Free Enterprise, (backed by the national restaurant-industry organization), which has attacked the living-wage movement from its inception. The City of Santa Fe is defending the statute, with support from Paul Sonn of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York (who has crafted and defended living-wage laws around the country), along with the top-flight international law firm Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton and Garrison, working pro bono. In December a judge rejected one of the lawsuit’s central claims–that only the state, not the city, can set a minimum wage–but the law is in abeyance until the district court rules on other issues. Morty Simon, of the Santa Fe Living Wage Network, scoffs at the lawsuit as “frivolous” and says there is still plenty of on-the-ground work being done to promote a minimum wage in Santa Fe. Some 215 local businesses have signed on to voluntarily comply with the Council-approved measure, he says, and a Living Wage Network-supported low-wage-worker organizing campaign has boosted wages at a local supermarket by at least $1.50 an hour.

It’s still an open question whether the city minimum-wage movement will take flight and elevate wages on a broad scale for private-sector employees trapped in a Wal-Mart economy. And state-level fights are key. Sonn says that there is no legal impediment preventing states from passing legislation to gut local ordinances retroactively. (Currently, there is legislation in place in at least ten states to preclude local minimum-wage hikes.) As much as grassroots organization has propelled the movement to success locally, activists will need to marshal considerable statewide political clout to protect those hard-won victories.

And the movement has gone on the offensive in some states, where activists are pushing to raise the state minimum above the paltry federal level. In Florida, ACORN is close to collecting enough signatures to put a measure on the state ballot for November that would raise the state wage to $6.15 an hour, with annual raises, and in New York, the Working Families Party is pushing to boost the state minimum to $7.10.

If they do well in November, Democrats could finally make headway on a federal minimum-wage raise. Candidate John Kerry has declared support for a raise, creating a potential opening for local and state-level campaigns to exert upward pressure. Wage-hike opponents, despite all their resources, often move with less agility than the grassroots, giving local organizations the potential to move minimum-wage boosts through contiguous cities and counties. But between the New Mexico lawsuit and the state-level challenges in Louisiana and Wisconsin, the living wage is still up for grabs. In many areas, fair-wage activists have momentum–not to mention morality–on their side, but as the stakes rise, their adversaries are bringing out the big guns. One thing’s for sure: Neither side will go down quietly.

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