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.