Living Wage Movement

A movement to significantly raise the minimum wage to a “living wage” is catching on across the country, raising the standard of living for hundreds of thousands of workers. At least 18 cities, including Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Boston, have already enacted living wage legislation, and campaigns in over a dozen more are being waged by coalitions of organized labor and community groups.

Living wage laws usually state that the wage earned must be enough to sustain a family of 3-4 above the federal poverty line ($16,400 for a family of four.) Currently, workers who earn the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour make an average of only $10,700 a year. Most ordinances apply to all employers who contract with or receive substantial tax incentives or subsidies from the city government. The rates vary from city to city.

San Jose’s tentatively passed living wage ordinance is the nation’s highest minimum passed so far at $12.50 an hour with benefits, and $15 without. Oakland by contrast passed a similar ordinance in April that guarantees city contract workers $8 an hour with benefits and $9.25 without. L.A. and Pasadena are requiring $7.25 w/benefits, $8.50 w/out. Other cities weigh in at: Boston $8.2; Portland $7; Baltimore $7.10; Milwaukee $6.05; Jersey City, NJ $7.50; Des Moines $9; and Santa Clara County, CA at $10 w/health benefits. Some ordinances concern only wages, others just benefits, while still others set minimum standards for both. Most include a package of both.

In San Francisco, a living wage resolution is pending before the Board of Supervisors, having been sent to the Finance Committee for approval by a newly created living wage task force. The Association of Bay Area Governments has said that a Bay Area single parent with one child must earn $14.50 an hour to stay above the poverty line. Living wage advocates in San Francisco say a law there would need to set wages near $10 an hour, almost twice the current minimum wage. If the task forces derails the movement, advocates say they will put an initiative on the ballot. The Board is expected to vote on a study proposal at its November 23 meeting.

The ordinances normally apply only to businesses which contract for or receive in assistance a minimum $25-100,000 from the city and have more than say 25 employees. Oakland’s ordinance, while not the highest in pay, is one of the most comprehensive in other ways. Employees of qualifying firms, agencies and non-profit organizations are ensured of at least 12 days of compensated days off per year for sick, personal, or vacation leave and 10 days of uncompensated time off per year for other reasons. And in Boston, covered employers must use community-based hiring halls and cannot displace employees covered by collective bargaining agreement.

While efforts to create a living wage have received substantial support from unions around the country, needless to say business interests haven’t been so supportive. Steve Tedesco, president of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, said that San Jose’s living wage ordinance would cause a domino effect in the city, with unions demanding more money from companies that otherwise would not be affected by it.

“There is going to be a ripple effect on labor contracts,” he said. None of the living wage ordinances applies explicitly to workfare workers. This has presented problems in Baltimore, where the city is undermining the intent of the ordinance by hiring workfare workers instead of contract employees. It is also important for ordinances to consider annual rises in the cost of living without the necessity of obtaining legislative revisions.

This September, the U.S. Senate rejected a $1 election-year increase in the federal hourly minimum wage pushed by Sen. Edward Kennedy. By a 55-44 vote, senators killed the proposal, which would have raised the minimum wage earned by some 12 million Americans to $6.15 on Jan. 1, 2000. The first 50-cent increase would have taken effect next New Years.

Weekly wages for average American workers are about 14% below 1973 levels, adjusting for inflation. In the last few decades the United States has been redistributing wealth away from workers. The average CEO made 326 times the pay of factory workers last year, up from 1980, when CEOs made 42 times as much. The net worth of the bottom 40 percent of households in 1995 was 80 percent less than in 1983.

Labor, in a market system, is just another commodity; the wage a woman or man commands has nothing to do with how much she or he needs to support a family or to feel part of the broader society. The living wage movement is simply a way to raise the minimum wage through local action.

“It smacks of socialism to me,” said City Councilman Robbie who recently opposed Greensboro, North Carolina’s living wage drive.

There are other strategies to consider. Berkeley’s recent measure to shorten the work week with no loss in pay would in effect raise the minimum wage, with the added bonus of spreading work around to more people, thereby reducing competition for jobs and unemployment. Another strategy would be state-wide and national calls for a guaranteed job at a living wage for all people who want one. Or how about sweeping aside the wage system all together in favor of an economy based on voluntary association.

To get involved in the living wage movement locally, contact: Temp Workers Union, 1095 Market Street, Suite 616, San Francisco, CA 94103. For local contacts of ongoing campaigns elsewhere, contact ACORN at 202-547-2500.