The Moral Minimum

The Moral Minimum

As the lagging minimum wage is being turned into a moral issue instead of an economic one, states are beginning to act where the federal government has not.


David Coss sits at ease behind his large desk, his long, wiry body draped in a gray-brown linen suit. A Georgia O’Keeffe poster of a horned animal’s skull hangs on the wall behind him. A second poster, in pastels, shows off a glorious Southwestern desert and mountain landscape, evoking swirling dreams and endless possibilities. With his neatly coiffed hair and graying goatee, Coss looks like a high-end attorney or, perhaps, a CEO. In fact, he has a background as an environmental scientist and a union organizer, and he is currently the mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has risen to power at least in part because of his assertive championing of the most comprehensive living-wage statute in America.

Three years ago, after a decade-long campaign by social-justice activists, seven of the eight councilors in this chic–and expensive–desert town voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, with successive increases built in that would hike it up to $10.50 by 2008. In the years since, the courts have rejected legal challenges to the law, and public support for the change has remained high–notwithstanding doom and gloom prognostications from the town’s tourism-dominated service industries. As of mid-2006, the lowest hourly wage permissible in Santa Fe was $9.50. It is, Coss avers, “basic economic fairness in making the economy work for everyone and not just the people at the top.” When in 2004 the Chamber of Commerce ran candidates against the four councilors most outspoken in their support of the living wage, all four of the chamber’s candidates were soundly beaten on election day.

Santa Fe’s move followed those of dozens of other municipalities over the past decade. In 1994 Baltimore kick-started the process by passing a modest living-wage ordinance affecting about 1,500 workers. By the turn of the century, more than sixty other cities had followed suit. In the years since, dozens more have enacted such laws. In some cases the living wage affects only city workers, or businesses that contract with city and state governments; elsewhere they apply across the board. In some cases grassroots activists have convinced developers of large construction projects to abide by living-wage guidelines [see Bobbi Murray, “Minimum Security,” July 12, 2004]. What makes Santa Fe’s law particularly important is its breadth and ambition.

In a town with a high percentage of practicing Catholics, the living wage in Santa Fe has been pushed not just as a sensible economic move–as a way to stimulate spending-and-savings cycles at the bottom edge of the labor market–but as a moral imperative, backed up by the authority of papal encyclicals dating back to Leo XIII at the tail end of the nineteenth century. “No one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” Monsignor Jerome Martinez states. The monsignor is a middle-aged man with a shock of curly gray hair, a warm smile and a deeply suntanned, slightly pocked face. He shares his cluttered office next to the spectacular Cathedral of St. Francis with two large green cactuses and several oil paintings of Jesus. “The dignity of the worker is more than just being a cog in the industrial machine,” he says. “The just wage provides sustenance, housing, minimum healthcare, retirement benefits and that the worker should have an opportunity to be generous. The ability to be generous is an important aspect of the church. It makes you feel more like a human being.” Smiling broadly, Martinez proudly recalls that, at a time when living-wage advocates dreamed of the $8.50 earnings floor, the church in Santa Fe paid none of its sixty-five employees less than $11.50 an hour.

In September 1997 Congress raised the federal minimum wage to $5.15 an hour, where it has remained ever since. Their income eroded by inflation, America’s lowest-paid workers now receive less per hour, in real terms, than at any time in the past fifty years. Working a forty-hour week, a minimum-wage worker earns about $11,000 a year, a pitiably small amount for a single person and one that is utterly degrading to a worker supporting an entire family.

“I just barely paid my bills,” recalls 49-year-old Mike Taylor, a burly man with uneven teeth and receding ginger hair, sitting in the offices of the local branch of ACORN, in a poor neighborhood of Albuquerque. Taylor is a community activist and one-time KFC worker who, before he became unemployed, pulled in a $300 weekly paycheck. “I wasn’t able to go out and enjoy movies, didn’t go out to dinner. I couldn’t even afford KFC. And that’s just a single person. I had guys over there worked two jobs and their wives worked two jobs, because they had children. There’s only been a couple of times in my life I was able to save anything. There was a time I was working $10 an hour and I could pay my bills and still save up $1,000. I was 45 then. I’m 49 now.”

Until recently, whenever Democratic politicians called for raising the minimum wage, Republicans in Congress blocked it. This summer the GOP changed tactics. Faced with an increasingly vociferous movement to raise it, and with attention focused on Chicago’s passage of a living-wage ordinance mandating that big-box companies such as Wal-Mart increase pay and benefits, party strategists came up with a novel approach: Support a hike in the baseline pay scale, but tie it to a huge cut in the estate tax for wealthy Americans. Not surprisingly, this was unacceptable to Democrats and to moderate Republicans, and the push for a higher national minimum wage fizzled out. The maneuver served its purpose, allowing the GOP to claim they now were the party that favored raising the minimum wage, while leaving companies free to get on with the business of underpaying their employees.

While politicians have dithered and played strategy games around the issue, an increasing number of cities and states have begun stepping in, crafting their own minimum-wage and living-wage laws. “Raising the minimum wage appropriately belongs at the federal level,” New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid argues. “But because they have failed to act in ten years, states and cities have taken on that role.” “I’m quite happy city by city,” Santa Fe’s Mayor Coss argues. “The business community is soon going to want the federal government to do something, because the minimum wage is proving so successful locally.” In other words, Coss believes, create a national standard or risk having electorates in many parts of the country pass initiatives raising local wages far more than Congress would ever contemplate doing.

This year legislators in Arkansas and Michigan have raised the minimum wage in their states; and California and Massachusetts now have minimum wages approaching Santa Fe’s level. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the most dramatic minimum-wage campaigns are occurring in the interior Western states, in classic Barry Goldwater country, with trade unions, churches and community groups forming potent coalitions for change. “The hope is that with these minimum-wage campaigns, it’s the first step to building economic-justice campaigns in these Western states,” says Paul Sonn of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “There’s this economic populist yearning that hasn’t been recognized.” Sonn and other organizers around this issue believe that it will take ten or fifteen years of work to get the federal government to restore the value of the minimum wage to the level it was at in the 1960s. In the meantime, local actions and political movements, they argue, will be key to keeping the pressure on politicians in Washington.

“That’s the key to the West,” argues Deanna Archuleta, a feisty county commissioner in New Mexico’s Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque. “If you’re not willing to do it for us, we’ll do it ourselves, particularly in New Mexico. Across the board, we’re just less afraid to take the risk.”

In 2004 Nevada’s voters passed a minimum-wage initiative, the first step in a two-stage election process to get the law onto the books. This November it’s on the ballot again, and supporters believe its passage is a near certainty. A similar initiative in Arizona, backed by Governor Janet Napolitano, breezed to qualification for the ballot, with 209,000 signatures. An initiative is on the ballot in Colorado that would raise the minimum wage to $6.85 and index it to inflation, complementing an already existing living-wage statute in the city of Denver. And, although a minimum-wage increase died in New Mexico’s state legislature last year, in several cities and counties, including the population hubs of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and the wilderness town of Gallup, such measures either have been passed or are on the verge of passage. Recently, Governor Bill Richardson has thrown his support behind a statewide minimum wage, and the betting money is on a statewide bill passing when the legislature next convenes, in early 2007. Since Washington, Oregon and California already have relatively high minimum wages, once this crop of initiatives passes, most of the American West will be far ahead of the standards set by the federal government.

In the West in particular, the framing of the minimum-wage debate is increasingly being turned on its head. Whereas in the past the minimum wage was portrayed by chambers of commerce and their political allies as Big Government intruding on the rights of businessmen to operate in a laissez-faire environment, today it is the absence of a viable minimum wage that is being discussed as a Big Government subsidy to corporate America. When companies like Wal-Mart pay too little for workers to meet their basic financial needs, and don’t offer adequate health and pension benefits, government programs fill some of the gap, paying Medicaid bills, supporting elderly ex-workers, providing food stamps and other forms of welfare. Minimum-wage legislation is, in a sense, a way to insure that taxpayers don’t have to clean up the messes left by private companies. In an era in which, for better or worse, many Americans are deeply suspicious of government, this way of framing the issue has allowed minimum-wage campaigns to garner huge levels of support even among conservative and upper-income voters in states like Arizona.”[Employers] are asking state and federal governments to subsidize private business by providing welfare and food stamps,” Monsignor Martinez expostulates. “It’s a position the church feels is not fair.”

The minimum wage, Western proponents emphasize, is a way of using government to temper the worst excesses of the market. It is, writes author David Callahan in his newly published book The Moral Center, a matter of “honoring work,” something quintessentially a part of the American promise that if you put in the labor you’ll have at least a chance at upward mobility.

In an era in which large numbers of working-class Americans have turned to the Republican Party because of its supposed fealty to “moral values,” the minimum wage is proving fertile terrain for a more progressive brand of politics and a broader discussion of “values.”

“We need to be appealing to blue-collar workers again,” argues Martin Heinrich, president of the Albuquerque City Council and a leading supporter of minimum-wage legislation. “I grew up in a household where my dad worked for a utility company and my mom worked for the auto industry.” Progressive politicians, Heinrich says, need to embrace “populist economics,” and that means taking companies to task when they fail to pay their workers fairly. “Very few businesses will be willing to be the businesses singled out by the papers for failing to pay the minimum.”

When restaurant owners bemoaned Santa Fe’s living-wage ordinance, Coss was positively caustic in his response. “We didn’t get the new Chili’s restaurant because of the living wage. It’s hilarious to me–I’m sitting in the culinary capital of the Southwest and I’m supposed to be concerned because we didn’t get a new Chili’s!” Unemployment in his city, he is quick to add, is at 4 percent, just under the New Mexico state average and lower than that of the country as a whole. And, he argues, drawing on a study by University of Massachusetts economists, across the country raising the minimum wage has not hurt employment and has raised the income of non-minimum-wage workers too. “It’s that old saying,” explains Robin Gould, president of the Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council, while sipping tea in one of Santa Fe’s numerous upscale cafes. “A rising tide lifts all boats.” All told, about 9,000 workers in Coss’s city, many of whom either live in Albuquerque or in the poor, unincorporated areas southwest of Santa Fe itself, now receive larger paychecks because of the minimum-wage law.

“Every time a business closes now, they blame it on the living wage,” Coss says in exasperation. “But if you look at annual openings and closings, there’s no discernible impact of the living wage. It gives us an opening for saying that economic development is about all of us.”

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