I am a lifelong organizer—in labor and community settings—and am proud to say that I helped spearhead the living-wage campaign in Baltimore twenty years ago this fall. Our campaign was led by the religious leaders of BUILD—Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation—along with a team of determined low-wage service workers. While we received support from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), this effort was conceived, planned, implemented and owned by local civic and clergy leaders alongside local workers. We won in Baltimore. Then, two years later, with almost no support from organized labor, we won in New York City. And we found that we had sparked a wave of living wage battles in cities and counties across the country that continues to this day.
It pains me to say this, but I now believe that the effort going into raising the minimum wage and passing living-wage bills fails to address the fundamental cause of low wages and terrible conditions: a lack of worker power. Those who believe, as I do, that workers deserve a living wage and decent benefits, can’t ignore the fact that twenty years of mobilizing around higher minimum wages and legislated living-wage standards have not closed the wage gap. That gap has continued to grow. And the rate of growth has accelerated. It’s not a gap that will be filled by legislated solutions. It can and will only be filled by organized workers willing to fight for better wages and benefits in their own workplaces.
So, consider me a friendly and constructive critic of the living-wage campaign approach that I helped start.
We had other critics twenty years ago. They predicted the living wage would cause massive layoffs of workers. Their worst fears were never realized. There were no layoffs; wages went up; absenteeism went down; the world continued to turn on its axis. Our critics also feared that paying a living wage would lead to higher taxes. It didn’t. They predicted that paying a few hundred workers a few dollars more an hour would undermine the mighty trillion-dollar market. It didn’t.
We developed the living-wage strategy because, in the early 1990s, more traditional unionization campaigns became almost impossible in an environment of outsourced work, weak labor laws, and outmoded and sometimes undemocratic union representation elections. We came up with an alternative strategy.
We began by creating an organization of Baltimore service workers—cafeteria workers and custodians at public schools and in public buildings—who performed the same work as city employees but for private contractors. This new organization then joined forces with BUILD, a strong community organization made up of mostly religious institutions, and with AFSCME, which gave the organization a charter so that it was officially a local union—albeit a union without any contracts. Everyone involved—the workers (of whom there were 1,000 dues paying members), churches and other allies—was united around the goal of getting a bill passed by the city council that would prescribe wage levels in city contracts.
In the fall of 1994, we succeeded: the city council passed Ordinance 442, which required all city service contractors to pay a wage that would lift a full-time employee with a family of four above the federal poverty standard. That wage was set annually by the Baltimore Board of Estimates and was enforced by the Baltimore Wage and Hour Commission.