Confusing Minimum Wages with Living Wages

minimum-wageNew Orleans    The back and forth between raising minimum wages and winning living wages or at least more livable wages gets confusing at the confluence of policy and politics, tactics and strategy, and that’s not helping us either nationally or locally.

First a story. In 1978, in New Orleans, we began an organizing drive to build the Household Workers Organizing Committee. Our first campaign was designed to organize household workers or “maids,” as many called them then to force employers enjoying maximum power in this historically burdened profession over their domestic workers, to have to pay the federal minimum wage covering these workers for the first time. At streetcar and bus stops, early in the morning, headed to the wealthier neighborhoods by Lake Ponchartrain or uptown along St. Charles Avenue, I would fan out with our team of organizers to talk to workers about signing a petition demanding enforcement of the minimum wage. Many were making one-dollar or less per hour with bus fare and lunch counted against their wage. Mandatory payments of Social Security withholding by employers were rare as hen’s teeth. Here’s the punch line for today though. When we would tell the women that they were now going to be covered under the minimum wage of $1.65, they would almost always talk to us and themselves about being paid the “top wage,” which was how they saw the bump, and needless to say, few expected there was any real chance that they would be paid the new minimum, and they were probably right to some degree.

A minimum wage is just what it says. The very least that can be legally paid. It is not a maximum wage or even a “top” wage. In fact workers, their unions, and others that value people’s work and labor should want to pay fairly and pay more, but they categorically cannot pay less.  The Fight for $15 has been valuable in raising the issue of wages, especially for fast food workers, and in several labor markets like Seattle, New York, and Los Angeles it has helped set a standard of sorts. In many cities there is a tension though between the fight to establish and win higher minimum standards for all workers and the campaigners for $15 driven by the publicity and demands in other cities.

Either way, we have always argued for fairer wages in various cities and states on two grounds: one, that workers needed and deserved fair and increased pay, and, secondly, that an insignificant number of jobs, if any, would be lost by doing so. A study reported in The New York Times seems to indicate that holding onto to the $15 banner in many cities may perilously undermine our argument about job loss and could dangerously erode our political support for the righteousness of our cause. The economists essentially argued that a wage bump that was NO HIGHER than 50% above the median income could likely be absorbed, which is certainly the case in New York City and Seattle, but that we were on thin ice over unknown waters at 60% and higher. The list of those cities was long in the study and included Los Angeles which is on the $15 track now, but also Columbus, Charlotte, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Austin, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Denver, and Minneapolis. Over 70% of median by 2020 the cities would include Miami, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Nashville, Omaha, Phoenix, and Atlanta.

We have argued before that we needed a standard that might be triggered to the cost of housing in many of these cities on the more adverse side of $15 per hour. More recently we have started finding some success at $10 and $10.55 an hour for various categories of workers in Houston and New Orleans. We need to keep fighting for $15 so that the debate remains focused, but we need to actually win increases for workers, especially those that are stuck bargaining for wages over the $7.25 legal federal minimum, and in so doing recognize that a 50% wage bump to $10 an hour or over is a life changing victory for them, and, as the Country & Western song says, “something we can be proud of” if and when we win.

 

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