Living Wage Campaign, New Zealand Version

Auckland         Talking to union members, organizers, and activists in New Zealand, one thing many of them mentioned as a bright, shining spot has been the progress of the Living Wage Movement throughout the country.  The national mandatory minimum wage is $16.50 NZ per hour, and the living wage number this fall is going to be more than four NZ dollars higher around $20.50 NZ.  In US dollars that would be a current minimum of $10.84 compared to $7.25 per hour as the federal minimum in America, and $13.46 compared to the $15 per hour that has been the campaigning point for many in the states.  It’s not hard to see how a campaign like this would start to make a huge difference, especially to lower waged workers, just as the living wage movement has delivered in other countries.

Living wage standards are different than in the US version, because they are voluntary, rather than mandatory.  In the US, where achieved, a “living wage” victory sets a new hard floor for all workers in a jurisdiction, either corporate, public employers, or contracted workers for public authorities.  Labor unions have been most aggressive in joining with community partners in the US to force living wage levels for subcontractors as a hedge against subcontracting by eliminating the incentive for public employers to join the race to the bottom so common in the modern economy.

The Living Wage Campaign in New Zealand has been more along the lines of the effort developed in the United Kingdom by UK Citizens.  Employers are both targeted by the campaign and solicited broadly to voluntarily join the campaign and become “accredited” as “living wage employers.”  They receive a certificate that can be posted, and they are allowed to advertise the fact that the pay the living wage minimum.  There is no governmental enforcement mechanism for scofflaws, but in talking to a union organizer, not surprisingly many unions have used that fact as an organizing tool to encourage workers to join the union in order to enforce that way and generally improve wages and working conditions.

At this point there are about 100 employers that have agreed to the standard covering an estimated 1000 workers throughout the country.  Many of the early employers were nonprofits, charities, and religious organizations, but even more significantly the campaign has succeeded in bringing on public employers in several jurisdictions including Christchurch and other larger city councils.  At the end of 2017 a national utility company, Vector, agreed to the standards which was a major breakthrough as the first large private sector company.

The national government, a Labor-Green coalition, is reportedly coming on board soon which will encourage more public employers on the local level to join the new standard as well.  Since the agreement covers contractors, this should be a boon for labor organizing to see that it gets done and stays intact.  Over the next year some believe the standards may cover 5000 workers.

Many believe that these earlier successes of the campaign are helping solidify the potential for community-labor coalitions and could be one of many factors reenergizing the New Zealand labor movement.

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Finally an Alabama Lawsuit Fights Living Wage Preemption

WON THE MINIMUM WAGE BALLOT INITIATIVE 2.2.02New Orleans   The other day I stumbled onto a picture of a press conference in New Orleans in 2002, where our coalition of organizations was celebrating our living wage election victory on February 2nd almost fifteen years ago. We later lost what we had won solidly at the ballot box with New Orleans voters when the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that a law passed by the state legislature in Baton Rouge after we had qualified for the ballot, but before the vote, preempted the ability of New Orleans voters to enact a minimum wage in a state where, effectively, no minimum wage existed. We had already seen the Restaurant Association and others move similar legislation Texas and Colorado in the wake of ACORN and Local 100 ballot initiatives on living wages in the late 1990s in Houston and Denver in order to block repeat efforts along with other states like Florida. Over two decades this has been the industry strategy to block citizen efforts to use the ballot box to make change locally, when we are blocked at the federal and state level.

Now there’s a ray of hope in Alabama where lawyers and community-based organizations have called out the conservative, Republican controlled legislature for racial discrimination. The democratically elected Birmingham City Council had the courage to respond to fast food workers and a many other local organizations pleas about the inadequacy of their wages. This was not some pie-in-the-sky giveaway, but actually a fairly modest program of wage increases, much like the package that President Obama has had before Congress unsuccessfully for several years. The Council action would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 from the present $7.25 by mid-2017 in a series of bumps. $10.10 is a long, long way from the $15 per hour that has been enacted in Seattle, New York City and Los Angeles, but it is also almost 40% higher than the piddling wage where we have been stuck for years, and that seems to have been what got the Alabama legislators’ goat. Well, that and probably a search-and-destroy party of well-heeled lobbyists raining money and mayhem all around them.

The state NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and a couple of fast food workers became the plaintiffs and enlisted a labor and civil rights lawyer to take the case and seek to block and overturn the legislature’s effort to interfere with workers’ rights in Birmingham. Their suit is plain-spoken and argues that the legislature’s action was a civil rights violation based on “racial animus” because Birmingham is 74% African-American.

The Wall Street Journal cited research from the National Employment Law Project that in the last five years “legislators in 30 states have introduced more than 100 bills that tried to repeal or weaken core wage standards at state or local levels.” In some ways that doesn’t help the Birmingham case because it illustrates how common and widespread the attack on cities and their workers are based solely on class hatred and struggle.

So, do we have a chance of winning? As long as we’re fighting, we have a chance of winning. It’s only when we stop doing so that we’ve completely lost. So, for the first time in a long time, let’s join together and chant, Roll Crimson Tide, we’re rooting for our brothers and sisters in Birmingham to win this one for all of our teams.

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Please enjoy Bonnie Raitt’s Need You Tonight. Thanks to KABF.

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