The Need for a Living Wage

Try supporting yourself on $206 per week -- that's $10,712 a year. Try paying for rent and utilities, food, clothes and transportation. Nothing left for anything else but survival.

Try doing it with a family, a wife, two kids. That $206 per week would put you about 40 percent below the federal poverty line.

And that supposes you work 40 hours every week of the year -- something not very likely, given the kinds of jobs that generally pay the minimum.

That's the way it is for millions of Americans, women and men who work 40 hours a week at minimum wage jobs, who barely survive despite trudging to work everyday.

Politicians have been haggling over raising the wage since pushing through a 21 percent increase several years ago. But their proposed increases are always too little, too late. Even with the last hike, the minimum wage remains 26 percent lower than it was in 1980 (after correcting for inflation) because the cost of necessities such as rent and food have skyrocketed during the last 19 years. The minimum wage would need to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 an hour for it to be where it was when Reagan entered the White House.

That's why it's important to look elsewhere for help. An array of community and labor organizations have hitched their wagons to the living wage campaign. They want to require local governments to issue contracts only to private firms that pay a living wage, limit tax assistance, economic development funds or other aid to corporations who do so or jack up the local minimum wage by as much as 50 percent.

More than 30 communities across the country have waged successful campaigns. The campaigns generally have followed two courses: letting voters force the issue via the Initiative and Referendum processes (like the initiative in St. Paul pushed by the Twin Cities New Party) or convincing local councils to hike the wage through legislative means (as in the Milwaukee campaign led by Progressive Milwaukee).

Both have the same goals, to stabilize wages at higher levels. The idea is to prevent what happened in Jersey City in the early 1990s from happening elsewhere. City Hall security guards there were earning $9 an hour with health benefits until the city privatized the jobs and forced workers to bid for their old positions. That drove wages down to $6 an hour with no benefits.

While Jersey City's living wage campaign was unsuccessful, others have succeeded. In Baltimore, most of the people living in the city's poorer neighborhoods were earning the $4.25 per hour federal minimum wage, which was worth just $170 for a 40-hour week, far below what was necessary to keep a family afloat. The Solidarity Sponsoring Committee, a coalition of church and labor groups, began campaigning for a living wage law that would require city contractors to pay workers on city contracts a certain percentage above the poverty line. The wage was set at $6.10 in 1995 with incremental annual increases that brought it to $7.70.

Solidarity followed with a successful campaign to force the city Board of Estimate to pass a "Right of First Refusal" law giving workers the right to retain their jobs even if new contractors take over. If a new janitorial firm is brought in to clean elementary schools, the firm has to offer the jobs to the workers who previously held them.

The combination of the two laws helped stabilize wages and jobs. The living wage helped increase wages, because private-sector employees had to pay more to keep pace with contractors working for the city to keep their best employees. And the right of refusal meant that workers would not be left to the whims of the market. They had the same right to their job as their employers had to bid on contracts.

Opposition to living wage legislation is fierce. The Investor's Business Daily says "living wage" laws are an unnecessary intrusion into the market and that their imposition would impede growth and force more companies to flee offshore, where wages are even lower.

But the history of the minimum wage appears to contradict these claims. Employers have not sent minimum wage jobs elsewhere. How could they when most minimum wage employment is in the service sector, i.e., janitors, housekeepers, store and restaurant clerks, dishwashers, etc. These are not the kinds of jobs that easily can be shipped overseas.

Opponents also claim that wages have fallen because workers have not developed their skills -- an argument that ignores the realities of corporate downsizing and proliferation of low-wage jobs.

The real reason for most of the opposition is that living wage legislation would cut into corporate profits. The more employees are paid, the less there is for investors. And when all is said and done, that's all that appears to matter in the American economy.

Living wage legislation is an attempt to redirect the spoils of our economic system to the workers who have been ignored the most.

For more on Living Wage campaigns, see (, or call the New Party, 800-200-1294.

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