If our so-called national leadership had not lost its shame gene, surely it would be red-faced over its failure to do some little something about the plummeting value of the minimum wage. Today’s miserly minimum of $5.15 an hour delivers a sub-subsistence income of $10,700 a year, if you get full-time work. That’s gross, in two meanings of the word. Millions of Americans–most of them adults and supporting families–are working either for this wage or are paid just a few coins more and have their poverty pay pegged to this wage floor.
There’s been a longstanding proposal in Congress to raise the minimum wage by a buck, but stand there is all it has done, for neither party has moved it forward. There was a flurry of excitement a couple of years ago when House Speaker Dennis Hastert rose on his hind legs and gave an impassioned plea for Congress to help economically distressed people: “I am not crying crocodile tears, but they need to be able to have a life and provide for their family. They need to have a modest increase in their salary.” Unfortunately, he was not talking about minimum-wage workers; rather he was speaking of the urgent need to raise the pay of members of Congress, which the members promptly did.
We progressives need to stop looking to Washington to do it for us and move our focus to the battleground where we have legitimate, lasting and growing power: America’s grassroots. ACORN, an indefatigable organizer of low-income communities, and SEIU, the feisty unionizer of the low-wage service industry, are two national groups that understand this. They’ve teamed up with churches, civil rights advocates, an array of unions, women’s organizations and other local groups in cities, counties and states across America to pass not a minimum wage but living-wage laws. It is a sophisticated effort, including excellent research and support available through ACORN’s Living Wage Resource Center (www.acorn.org). In less than eight years, these ground-level coalitions have won living-wage campaigns in seventy-nine places from coast to coast.
Tough Fight in the Big Easy
Their latest and most sweeping victory is in the Big Easy–New Orleans, the home of jazz, Mardi Gras, great food…and unconscionably low wages. The engine of the Crescent City’s economy is the “hospitality” industry, including hotels, restaurants and clubs. These places rake in huge profits from the hundreds of millions of tourist dollars that flow through their doors every year, yet two-thirds of New Orleans service and retail workers are paid poverty wages. On average, full-time cooks there are paid 20 percent below the family poverty level, kitchen workers are 37 percent below poverty and housekeepers are 41 percent below. Yet, of America’s twelve major tourist markets, New Orleans hotels enjoy the fourth-highest room rates, and its high-dollar restaurants are consistently packed. With such prodigious wealth being generated on the backs of such poorly paid workers, SEIU organizer Wade Rathke says of his city, “We’re Jamaica without a beach.”