Living Wages and What Do You Get?

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Ideas and Issues

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 8.15.01 PMNew Orleans     Here’s the good news: add New Orleans to the list of cities that have passed a better wage for any company that subcontracts with the city or receives more than $50000. Beginning in January 2016 wherever the city’s public money goes in significant amounts, workers will find their wages set at $10.55. The measure passed by a 6-0 vote in the City Council, despite hand-wringing earlier by the Mayor about the potential cost. It is unclear how many workers will benefit, but all the movement is in the right direction and for a change, listening to the Council members, was done for the right reasons very deliberately to address inequity.

Local 100 United Labor Unions has already moved into gear in anticipation of a favorable vote, winning recognition on a unit of more than forty janitorial workers in recent days, knowing they could get the bump. We’ll be back at the airport where a new administration there had moved back our prevailing wages to the minimum on the last contract bid. We’re all over an announced privatization at the LSU campus in New Orleans where 70 workers are being pushed out of civil service protections. We’re on a roll having won a $10 minimum wage for school workers in the giant Houston Independent School District, and even seeing support finally building for a higher wage in Dallas where we have campaigned on this issue for years. It’s not a sea change, but it all adds up.

Hillary Clinton in parsing her position around “living wages” and the fight-for-$15 campaign has essentially argued that she is in favor of $15 in the cities that have already shown the courage to pass the measure like Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, but thinks the wages should be tailored to local market. Boiling it down, this seems to largely be little more than a position in favor of a higher federal minimum wage in the $10.10 per hour range that President Obama has advocated.

Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” pulled together some interesting points about the purchasing power of minimum wages and even a 15-buck dream raise. On numbers crunched by Pew Research $15 would be different everywhere:

In Honolulu, the priciest urban area in the United States, a $15 minimum wage is only worth about $12.24; in rural West Virginia, meanwhile, where prices are lower than anywhere else in the country, $15 is worth closer to $20. The only place where $15 is actually worth $15 is Allentown, Pennsylvania

A map put together by Pew indicates that in places like New York City, greater Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay area, and the Seattle area even their stair step to $15 per hour still buys a lot less, sometimes more than 20% less, than it would buy in other areas. A careful look at the map indicates that the same problem of diminishing purchasing power exists in the metro Portland, Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Philly, and Pittsburgh as well as some weird pockets like right at the tip of the New Hampshire-Canadian border. In other words the same cities where the pressure to raise the minimum wage is coming from. Unfortunately in most cases what we are winning is still piecemeal for contract workers here and for fast food workers there, while the inequity to workers trying to live on minimal wages in those cities is universal. Many cities, like Miami, New Orleans, Houston, and Dallas have been blocked from enacting citywide minimum wages in the corporate-political push-back to earlier living wage campaigns, most run by ACORN between 1995 and 2005.

What we have now is a patchwork of inequity on wages making even our victories, though hard fought, bittersweet. Almost all of the Republicans are described as “abolitionists” on minimum wages, not only opposing an increase, but arguing that there should be no set standards, substituting living wage campaigns for a plantation wage campaign. Democrats need to be careful on the business-friendly parsing being done by Hillary Clinton which risks faint praise for living wages as a pressure value in some urban pockets while leaving the rest of America’s lower wage workers stuck in the same rut waiting for a Congressional miracle.

We can’t really afford to change the debate from a federal minimum to regional wage rates like the ineffective, and often irrelevant, Mexican system. We need to speak with one voice.