Living Wage Movement Greets the Recession with New Victories

Five months ago, it seemed possible that the living wage movement which has been sweeping the country over the past eight years would wind down. In the post-September 11 world, with a recession hitting state and city budgets, it seemed possible that coalitions would have a harder time winning legislation aimed at raising wages.

But it is perhaps because of the recession, not in spite of it, that we’ve seen a dozen living wage ordinances passed since September, raising the total to over 80 nationwide.

PRIVATE SECTOR WORKERS

Most notably, on February 2, 63 percent of voters in New Orleans said yes to setting a citywide minimum wage at one dollar above the federal minimum of $5.15. The ordinance is unprecedented in that it will cover all private-sector employees working within city borders, not just those employed by city contractors or subsidy recipients as under most living wage ordinances.

The new law is expected to benefit over 75,000 workers and will result in a raise of almost 20 percent for those currently earning the federal minimum, many of whom work in the hotels and restaurants that continue to profit from the bustling tourism industry in that city.

The New Orleans victory was the culmination of a six-year effort. The campaign started in 1996 when ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and SEIU Local 100 led the way in gathering 50,000 signatures to place the initiative on the ballot.

Immediately, employer lobbies got the state to pass a law prohibiting local wage laws. After several years of court battles, the campaign won the right to put the initiative on the ballot.

Despite the overwhelming victory, employers have vowed to mount another legal challenge, claiming that the city does not have the right to set its own wage. Whether or not the law remains on the books, the voters have expressed their clear preference for higher wages.

Other municipalities that have recently adopted ordinances include Marin County, California; Bozeman, Montana; Washtenaw County, Michigan; and Charlottesville, Virginia. In December, Cumberland County, New Jersey passed the first ordinance to require a pension on top of a living wage and health benefits.

AND THE BAD NEWS

Setbacks have accompanied these victories, however. Last month brought a semi-victory to the Harvard Living Wage Campaign when university president Larry Summers finally agreed to a one-time wage increase to between $10.83 and $11.30 per hour for low-wage workers. Summers also agreed to wage parity between directly-hired and outsourced workers, meaning that the school could not use outsourcing or the threat of it as a means to reduce wages of current employees.

However, Summers did not agree to many of the demands of the students who sat in for three weeks last spring, or even the recommendations of the committee established by the administration to study the issue. Students will continue to pressure Harvard to adopt a living wage policy indexed to inflation and card-check neutrality agreements.

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More serious are recent defeats in Oakland, California and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where supposed “labor-friendly Democrats” have betrayed living wage supporters. Coming off a victory in Pittsburgh, hundreds of living wage supporters were on hand in Allegheny County in December expecting to see the culmination of their four-year campaign. Instead, they watched in shock as one of the bill’s co-sponsors switched his vote at the last minute, sinking the ordinance 7-6.

Across the country in Oakland, Mayor Jerry Brown and City Council President Ignacio de la Fuente did some behind-the-scenes dealing to water down an effort to pass a living wage ordinance for businesses at the Port of Oakland. The proposal put forth by the Living Wage Coalition, led by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), would have provided raises, job security measures, and protections for union organizing for about 3,000 workers.

The weaker proposal, supported by the Chamber of Commerce, would affect only about 150 workers. Outraged unionists, fed up with yet another betrayal by de la Fuente, forced him to resign from the Alameda County Central Labor Council.

EBASE was again thwarted when the city council succeeded in exempting restaurant, retail, and hotel businesses from their proposal for a March 2002 popular vote on the issue.

As in many other campaigns, these setbacks may serve only to strengthen the resolve of the living wage coalitions. After defeats in Chicago, St. Paul, Missoula, and Ann Arbor, campaigns forged ahead and eventually prevailed.

RECESSION BRINGS PRESSURE

Living wage organizers are bracing for more betrayals, as politicians who supported the living wage movement when the economy was stronger begin to use the recession as a justification for weakening their support as they bow to new business pressure.

In the best light, however, living wage organizers view the recession as an opportunity to advance their core messages.

After all, it is in times of austerity that a living wage is most needed, as raises for low-wage workers help stimulate the economy much more than tax cuts for corporations. What’s more, progressive wage policies are key to insuring that the next economic recovery does not distribute gains as inequitably as the last one did.

Increased pressure from business (read: major campaign contributors) will make it even more essential for organizers to build strong institutions that can step up the pressure on politicians and demand accountability to the still-growing demand for a living wage and workers’ right to organize.

Stephanie Luce teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Labor Center. Jen Kern directs ACORN’s Living Wage Resource Center. For Spanish version of this article, click here