Living Wage Campaigns Become a Movement

What started in the early 1990s with a few scattered campaigns to win better pay for low-wage workers has become a movement.

"The living wage movement is part of a general increase in energy for labor and community organizers," said Robert Pollin, co-author of The Living Wage.

"I think it's really caught on in a lot of places, because we have so few pro-active efforts these days, especially around economic justice," added Fred Azcarate, national director of Jobs with Justice.

While there is still no campaign for a national living wage, the local struggles are linked and supported by national organizations like Jobs with Justice and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). This has opened the door for the passage of living wage laws in 30 cities so far, including Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Boston. Campaigns are currently under way in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Philadelphia, and Dallas.

With more campaigns under their belts, living-wage organizers are able to learn from mistakes and develop new strategies. All the noise is slowly but surely moving the living wage issue into the national consciousness.

Proponents generally define a "living wage" as the amount necessary to keep a family of three or four above the poverty line. Though the laws vary, most cover workers for companies which hold municipal contracts or which receive some sort of public funding.


Advocates quickly saw that the benefits of a living wage were not limited to raising the wages of some low-income workers.

Privatization opponents saw that requiring companies holding city or county contracts to pay higher wages could reduce the financial incentive to privatize municipal services.

Those opposing community-eroding corporate tax breaks, saw that a living wage could force companies that had gotten this corporate welfare to give back to local communities by providing jobs that residents could live on.

Community organizations such as housing groups, anti-poverty advocates and church charities were behind many early campaigns. They often saw first-hand the effects of poverty wages.

"The living-wage campaign in Baltimore got started because people with jobs were coming into the soup kitchens and homeless shelters," said Pollin. Baltimore was among the first cities to undertake a living-wage campaign.

San Francisco is one of the most recent. Ken Jacobs, campaign director of that city's Living Wage Coalition, said that rising poverty spurred the fight there.

"The thing that's happening here is that the cost of living, especially rents, is skyrocketing," he explained. "It's unacceptable that here we have people working for the city, but who sleep in their cars because they don't earn enough."

Raises for some of the poorest workers were long overdue. But most organizers knew early on that getting those raises would be a daunting task.


Since the living-wage movement came largely out of community organizing, activists were experienced enough to know that victory was more likely if they didn’t aim too high. For one thing, instead of a national campaign, ACORN and Jobs with Justice poured resources into campaigns led by their local chapters. Meanwhile, locally based organizations focused on workers in their own communities.

At the local level, organizers focused on what they thought they could win. Their proposals fell between $6.50 and $12.00 an hour, depending on the local cost of living.

Those amounts were not necessarily adequate, says Pollin. “The current minimum wage is 25 percent below what’s needed to put a family at the poverty line, which itself is a poor measurement of poverty,” he said. “But the general reality is that poor working people can’t make a living, and you don’t need statistics to show you that.”

In addition, tying livable wages to the idea of getting something back from corporate welfare and privatization garnered more public support. The privatization issue had the added benefit of getting public-sector unions on board.


Getting labor involved in a bigger way was still a challenge, however. In some cases organized labor enthusiastically supported living wage campaigns; in others, the unions all but ignored them.

Sometimes union leaders felt that grassroots groups were intruding on their turf. This was despite the fact that the working poor, those who would benefit from these campaigns, felt largely ignored by labor. Their usual contacts were more frequently with the community organizers and social-service providers in their neighborhoods.

Unions became more active after the living wage movement had built up substantial momentum nationally. They brought activists and much-needed funding. This was a lifesaver for organizations with small staffs and small budgets.

“This is truly a grassroots movement,” said Pollin. “The unions were not the ones who initiated this movement. Unions have not been the principle driving force, but they got connected.”

San Francisco’s Living Wage Coalition included SEIU Locals 790, 535, and 250; HERE Local 2; and the San Francisco Labor Council. The coalition also included community groups such as People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), the Coalition for Ethical Welfare Reform, the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights, and the Bay Area Organizing Committee.

The work of Jobs with Justice and ACORN in many cities offers examples of unions and community groups joining forces. Jobs with Justice specifically works to link unions with community and religious groups.



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“We think the labor movement understands, or should understand, that even if this doesn’t directly impact their members, it’s still important,” said Fred Azcarate, national director of Jobs with Justice.


Early on, the victories were few and hard-won. Most difficult was going up against well-funded campaigns sponsored by the business community. Local chambers of commerce and conservative groups portrayed themselves as defenders of low-income workers, charging that higher wages would force employers to hire fewer workers, or move elsewhere.

Pollin says that the corporate community has overused this type of reasoning for years.

“That argument applies to all minimum wage laws--if you raise the price of low-wage labor, businesses will demand less labor,” said Pollin. “The evidence does not support that.”

Nevertheless, those arguments often worked, especially in cities with high unemployment.

In a few cases, even unions believed the hype, and turned their members against living wage proposals. During a 1995 fight in Minneapolis and St. Paul, unions either refused endorsement or openly denounced the campaign.

“Whether we win or lose is a question of how much groundwork we are able to do before,” explain Azcarate. “Sometimes, business not only outspends us, but out organizes us.”

The good news is that wins are getting easier. The movement has been strengthened by new research showing that a living wage does not erode jobs. Pollin said that studies show that national increases in the minimum wage have always been followed by employment increases, not reductions.

Some have also argued that forcing government contractors to pay workers more increases the amount that local governments must pay the companies for contracted work. But, as Pollin and Stephanie Luce point out in The Living Wage, local living wage laws add little to business costs, and virtually nothing to government costs.

“For one thing, government contractors are part of a competitive-bidding process,” he said. “The living wage is, on average, one percent of total spending by businesses. If a business wants a city contract, they will absorb these costs, or the city will find someone cheaper.”

The cost of the living wage is not enough to make businesses leave communities, either, Pollin says. “The types of firms that might leave are ones who have a high enough proportion of low-wage workers to make it cost-effective enough to leave. The number of firms like that is relatively few.”


With information available to counter the naysayers, Twin Cities activists launched a new campaign soon after their 1995 defeat. They garnered labor support, assembling a task force that lobbied the city councils of St. Paul and Minneapolis, eventually passing living wage resolutions in both cities.

As their experience grows, living wage organizers are becoming more savvy and creative. They are learning to strategize, and to connect other issues to the campaigns.

For example, San Francisco’s living wage proposal would cover workfare workers as well. Since these workers have to work off their benefit checks, raising their “wages” means that they would work for less time. Then workfare workers could go to school or hunt for real jobs.

In July, smart organizers in Chicago brought a living wage proposal before City Council members just before the politicians were going to vote themselves a salary increase. The resulting victory then spread to outlying Cook County, whose Board of Supervisors approved a living wage policy two months later.

But as more of these laws pass, organizers are finding that their work is just beginning.

“A lot of the real fight goes on after the things pass, when the lawyers get ahold of it,” Pollin said. “The organizers really have to be committed to seeing the thing through.”


In some places, the new laws have become mired in struggles over implementation and interpretation. In cases where their campaigns petered out after the election, organizers have not been able to do much about it.

As living wage fights go, the campaign in Detroit last year was quiet. There were no rallies or other forms of high-visibility community mobilization. There was just the petitioning, led by ACORN, to get the measure on the ballot. The local AFL-CIO announced its support after ballot status was assured.

Opposition by the mayor and local businesses was too little and too late. Over 80 percent of Detroit voters approved an ordinance requiring companies getting city money to pay at least $7.50 an hour.

The organizers won, not by mobilizing community and labor support, but by slipping quietly under Detroit’s corporate and political radar.

Afterwards, however, union and community organizers remained mostly silent as the city issued an interpretation severely limiting the number of workers covered. An AFL-CIO spokesperson said only, “We’re having our lawyer look at it.”

Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce is putting together an increasingly strong campaign to get the state legislature to quash the living wage law, claiming that voters did not understand what they were approving.

Pollin says it is time to raise the bar. So far, living wage laws directly benefit only the workers at a handful of relatively small government contractors.

“One reason they are winning is that they are narrow,” he said, “but they should work to broaden the program and get more workers covered.”