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PORTSIDE  March 2012, Week 1

PORTSIDE March 2012, Week 1

Subject:

Living Wage Laws: Worth the Effort?

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Date:

Thu, 1 Mar 2012 01:14:24 -0500

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Living Wage Laws: Worth the Effort?

by Stephanie Luce

Labor Notes
February 27, 2012

http://labornotes.org/2012/02/living-wage-laws-worth-effort

Almost 20 years ago a "living wage" campaign by pastors and
union organizers in Baltimore caught the attention of
activists around the country. It looked like a way to
address the fact that so many people were working but were
still poor.

Living wage activists have accomplished a lot since then,
winning more than 125 living wage ordinances in cities and
counties, three city minimum wages, and state and federal
minimum wage increases. Eight states have indexed their
minimum wage to inflation because of activist pressure, and
campaigns to raise and index state minimums are underway in
10 more states.

Activists also created coalitions that have helped unions
organize and win better contracts. They've supported city
and state campaigns for paid sick days and influenced the
debate about who should benefit from economic development.

Yet the number of workers earning poverty wages remains as
high as ever. A quarter of all workers in 2009 - about 35
million people - earned less than the hourly wage needed to
bring a full-time worker to the federal poverty line for a
family of four.

The problem has many roots. Living wage ordinances cover a
relatively small number of workers, because a typical
ordinance applies only to firms that receive contracts or
economic development assistance from a city government.

And even the "living wages" the movement has won are not
enough to bring a worker out of poverty, especially since
many low-wage workers are involuntarily part-time.

To meet the federal poverty line for a four-person family, a
worker would need to earn $10.63 an hour and work 40 hours a
week, 52 weeks a year. But this official poverty line -
$22,113 a year for a family of four - grossly underestimates
the real cost of living.

The living wages won in the last 20 years vary from $9.50 to
$17.78 (if health benefits are not provided) and include no
guarantee of hours.

Despite the weaknesses, the wages won have been significant
for those affected, who've seen raises during a time when
wages were mostly stagnant. But more important than dollars
gained have been the new coalitions and strengthened
alliances built in many cities, building a foundation for
future social movements.

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

The average living wage campaign takes several years, with
time spent building coalitions, determining a target wage,
lobbying city councilors, holding rallies, working with the
media, talking to workers, and negotiating many compromises
to reach a final ordinance.

After all that, some ordinances in small cities may cover
only a few dozen workers. (Larger ones can cover tens of
thousands.)

But living wage activists never saw the ordinances
themselves as the solution to poverty. Most saw the
campaigns as a way to assist unionization efforts and
contract campaigns, or to grow community and faith-based
organizations.

So living wage ordinances have often included language to
assist organizing.

For example, activists have been able to mandate that cities
give priority to developers who don't violate labor laws.
Language on "access" gives unions the ability to visit the
workplace. Non-retaliation can protect workers who talk
about living wages or rights on the job, and get them their
jobs back if they're fired for organizing.

The laws sometimes forestall contracting out, since private
companies lose interest in city contracts where they can't
cut wages.

Whatever language they win, unions have used living wage
campaigns to build ties to workers, launch organizing
drives, and support contract campaigns.

After activists won a living wage in Tucson, Arizona, city
workers contacted the Communications Workers and organized
their own union for more than 1,500 workers. The San
Francisco living wage coalition helped win card check from
the airport commission, resulting in several thousand
workers joining a handful of unions. The National Education
Association has launched a national effort to use living
wage campaigns as contract campaigns, to raise wages for
school support staff.

Community organizations have also grown. ACORN was the
movement's most visible success, growing significantly for
20 years in membership and influence. While ACORN had
internal weaknesses, it became the nation's largest
community organization for poor people and people of color,
with over a half million members - and a target for the
right wing even before the infamous smear video that proved
its unmaking.

In addition, community-labor "think and do tanks" benefited
from the living wage movement. They are now part of a
national network, driving campaigns such as "clean and safe
ports" in Los Angeles, universal health care in Connecticut,
and connecting affordable housing and transit access in
Denver.

SOCIAL MOVEMENT OR PR?

For the most part, the living wage movement did not turn out
to be an easy path to new organizing, and as a result by the
2000s some unions had backed off heavy involvement.

In some cities, unions have even argued against living wage
campaigns because they might be a deterrent to new
organizing: If workers got a raise through legislation, they
might not see the need for a union. Some in the building
trades have been reluctant to put the labor movement's stamp
of approval on the ordinances' low pay.

Sometimes unions attempted to pass ordinances from the top
down through relations with politicians, rather than doing
the hard work of movement- and relationship-building. Some
campaigns did not involve any of the workers that would be
covered by the ordinance, although many did.

But on balance, unions have played a positive role in the
living wage movement, providing material and political
support. In a few cities it was a way to build a Jobs with
Justice chapter.

Despite the challenges in using the campaigns for new
organizing, many union or labor council leaders got involved
because they saw it as the right thing to do, or to help
build more of a social movement close to home.

BOXED IN

Living wage activists were aware all along that the
ordinances they championed did not truly create a living
wage. But they had to work within the context they faced - a
weak labor movement and dormant social movements - and
attempt to build their forces for bigger struggles down the
road.

They knew that raising the federal minimum wage, now $7.25,
would affect many more workers than passing ordinances city
by city, but with Republicans relentlessly attacking workers
and Democrats pointing to education as the solution to
poverty, opportunities to win those increases were rare.

Living wage actions did help convince Congress to pass
increases in 1996 and 2007, but the boosts were not enough
and soon lost value from inflation.

Many living wage campaigns were launched not because they
were the best policy available but because they could use
leverage where activists were most likely to have it: at the
local level.

What was the alternative to living wage campaigns? It is not
clear that labor and community groups had better
opportunities to build alliances and power. In this context,
the campaigns made sense.

ROOM TO GROW

While activists in some cities are trying to expand the
coverage of living wage ordinances, a New York City campaign
demonstrates the challenges.

Despite solid research that showed the potential benefits of
a living wage, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Chamber of
Commerce went full force against the plan. Bloomberg
compared it to a Soviet decree, and the city gave $1 million
to a living wage opponent to write a report denouncing the
idea.

Campaigns to mandate living wages for hotels and retailers
in other cities have seen similar attacks, with opponents
spending lavishly.

Even city governments with strong economies and Democratic
control do not seem willing to stand up to the threats of
major employers like Walmart. In Chicago in 2006, Mayor
Richard Daley used his first veto in 17 years to defeat a
proposal applying to large retailers. Daley even suggested
that living wages were a union attempt to deny jobs to
African Americans.

After almost 20 years of organizing, living wage activists
remain committed. In the coming year, they will launch more
state minimum wage campaigns, build toward a larger federal
increase, and work to expand indexing.

But defeating the corporations that have built their entire
business model on low wages remains a giant challenge.

[Stephanie Luce has studied and worked with living wage
campaigns for more than 15 years. She teaches labor studies
at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York.]

___________________________________________

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