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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Union Density Pays: Finally Overtime for Home Health Care Workers…Soon!

domestic_worker_rtr_imgNew Orleans   Our first steps in the direction of organizing lower wage workers into worker associations which might lead to what unions started 35 years ago when household workers who were also called domestics or maids were finally able to be paid the federal minimum wage.   I moved from Little Rock to New Orleans and with the help of VISTA volunteers and others that we worked as organizers we hit bus stops on Canal Street at dawn and in almost lily white suburbs along Lake Pontchartrain, talking to household workers about making sure they got the minimum wage which many called the “top wage.”  We marched in Lake Terrace with hundreds to demand enactment.   We filed charges over peonage when we found a household worker for a well known bakery family paying less than 50 cents an hour.  We marched on the DOL Wage and Hour office demanding enforcement and I’ll never forget then, after months of assuring the members and leaders that the Household Workers Organizing Committee was an association of workers, rather than a union, that when asked by the DOL who we were, listening to our spokeswoman, tell them loudly that we “were a union of domestics.”   We forced the IRS to send out notices to all employers nationally who paid social security for household workers reminding them that they had to pay the minimum wage and made the IRS run advertisements on the radio and on buses and streetcars alerting people to the minimum wage.  We ended up having the liberal Carter Administration and Sam Brown from ACTION and Margery Tabankin the head of VISTA absurdly jettison our 100 person VISTA contract partially because some were being used as “union” organizers for just those efforts to make sure domestics received minimum wage protection.

            Mike Gallagher, an old friend and comrade, reminded me this summer in Montana that we (Mark Splain, Mike, Keith Kelleher, and me) had found the units of chore workers and home health aides that we organized in Boston and later in Chicago while looking for the equivalent of those same household workers in New Orleans then.  Now 35 years later it is wonderful to smile briefly at the fact that these same misclassified, underappreciated but critical workers are finally going to also have the fuller protection under the FLSA of payment for overtime hours at time-and-a-half.  No small reason has to do with the exceptional success of organizing from those very early roots to the point that SEIU now claims 600,000 of its 1.9 million members from that very job classification.  With AFSCME and other unions, my guess is that at least 800,000 of the 2 million or so largely women are in unions achieving 40% organizational density contradicting the downward trend of union density over this same generation of organizing, and doing so remarkably with informal workers in nontraditional workplaces in the notoriously difficult to organize service industry.   Even though 15 states already mandated overtime for such workers, the federal protection is a victory for all of them and is widely and appropriately credited to unions delivering for their members.

            Unfortunately, there is still a lot of work to be done.  The increase doesn’t take hold until 2015 and some employers are already moaning about the change.  Furthermore, estimates by the National Employment Law Project and our old friend Chris Owens estimate that 25% of the workers employed in this way are still paid under the minimum wage even after 35 years and even in states where union density and enforcement is more robust like California.  

            I’m not sure if the Obama Administration thinks like the Carter Administration that enforcement of minimum wages for low wage largely women workers is the same as union organizing, but Tom Perez, the new head of the DOL, seems like he’s not afraid to stir the pot, so maybe there is someone in the chair finally willing to listen to our calls for full enforcement for unprotected workers.  Passing a law or putting forth a regulation really doesn’t count for much if there is no plan for implementation and enforcement. 

 

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