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Moving Living Wages into Legislation

Congressman Al Green

New Orleans   Congressman Al Green from Houston was raised in New Orleans so he generously jumped at the chance to come over to address Local 100 United Labor Unions leaders from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana at the closing of our annual leadership conference.  In talking about issues for veterans, immigrants, minorities, the infirm, workers, and all of what he called, “the least, the last, and the lost,” he hit responsive cords with everyone, but the notion of putting living wages into federal legislation probably brought the most serious attention.

Green told us he had introduced a bill in Congress called L.A.W., the Living American Wage Act.  Basically, his is among many efforts to try to finally raise the federal minimum wage, but with a different twist.  He wants to address the ongoing and crippling stalemate that finds lower wage workers continually stuck for years while their wages are frozen and the cost of living increases.  Rather than just index the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index, he proposes in LAW to index the wage to the poverty rate to guarantee that workers are always making enough to keep out of poverty.  He proposes the level at 15% over the poverty level.

You’re thinking, “Who cares, it doesn’t have a chance anyway,” but this is not as crazy as you think as an argument in the debate, regardless of the eventual outcome.  We desperately need to index to something, everyone must agree.  To trap workers in a vicious cycle between always being frozen or having to try to catch-up is ridiculous.  When the Fair Labor Standards Act was initially passed there was extensive debate at that time, albeit when we still saw ourselves as an industrial country, of setting the minimum wage level as a percentage of the average industrial wage.  Had those proposals won, we would be living in a different country today.  Given the level of inequality and the role that the minimum wage plays in making it structural, perhaps looking “down” at the poverty level now makes more sense than looking up at the manufacturing wage, but let’s at least all agree with Congressman Green that we need to look somewhere, and do something.

There has been no movement on an increase in the minimum wage since President Obama’s remarks earlier this year that it was a priority.  I’m not sure who it is a priority for other than lower wage workers though and that may be why we’re hearing so little and seeing nothing about this measure these days.