Jan./Feb. 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 1 & 2
W i n n i n g C a m p a i g n s
Working for a Living Wage
By Jen Kern
Few would have predicted, on a cold Baltimore day in December 1994, that the seeds of a national grassroots movement were being sown. That day, after a substantial battle, a powerful labor-community coalition brought to fruition its campaign for a local living wage law, as the city of Baltimore passed a law requiring that firms with city service contracts pay their workers a living wage. That set in motion what columnist Robert Kuttner has called "the most exciting grassroots enterprise to emerge since the civil rights movement."
Today, a mere six years later, there are 53 living wage ordinances on the books in the United States - the political dividend of the impressive efforts of countless community groups, local labor unions, central labor councils, religious leaders, social service agencies, civil rights advocates and others who have come together to force issues of concern to the working poor onto the agendas of city councils, county commissions and ballot elections across the country.
The movement shows no signs of slowing down. More than 75 campaigns are currently underway in cities such as Dallas, Sacramento, Little Rock, Syracuse, Knoxville, Pittsburgh and New York. Civic coalitions throughout the United States are now demanding state living wage legislation; student groups are joining with campus unions to demand colleges and universities pay their workers a living wage; and a drive is heating up for new federal living wage legislation in Congress.
Living wage campaigns seek to require private businesses that benefit from public money to pay their workers a living wage (usually defined as at least enough to bring a family of four to the federal poverty line, currently $8.20 an hour). Commonly, the ordinances cover employers who hold large city or county service contracts or benefit from public tax dollars in the form of tax abatements or other economic development subsidies. These employers are required to pay employees a living wage as a condition of receiving government contracts or benefits.
As important as are the gains from living wage ordinances, they are limited in scope, because the wage increase is triggered only for workers performing city services through private contractors or in projects directly benefiting from government assistance. In most cases that means the ordinances touch only a modest percentage of the working poor within a jurisdiction.
Over the years, however, activists have adapted the living wage phrase to a range of campaigns around working conditions, workers' right-to-organize and corporate accountability. As such, the living wage concept is now associated with efforts to raise city or state minimum wages above the federal level of $5.15 as well as campaigns to demand that public money not be used for union-busting or that subsidized companies return public money if they fail to meet established labor standards, including job creation targets.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has been among the organizations with a leadership role in the living wage movement, leading coalitions to win ordinances in nine cities, most recently a smashing 77-23 margin of victory at the ballot box in St. Louis that will deliver a living wage of $8.84 an hour, or $10.77 an hour for workers without full health benefits. ACORN chapters are currently advancing seven additional campaigns. In 1998, ACORN established the Living Wage Resource Center to track the living wage movement and provide materials and organizing strategy to living wage campaigns that continue to multiply across the country.
Significantly, living wage campaigns are increasingly tied to labor struggles. For example, this past year, living wage coalitions in Duluth, San Francisco and Santa Cruz negotiated card check and neutrality agreements for significant numbers of hotel, airport and temp workers as part of their living wage campaigns, making it more likely that these workers will enjoy the benefits and protection of a union on their jobs. These agreements require firms benefiting from public funds to recognize unions that submit membership cards from a majority of employees, without an election in which employers try to convince workers to renounce their support for a union, or to remain neutral in union elections. In New Orleans, a major AFL-CIO multi-union organizing project will use a 2002 living wage ballot initiative campaign to identify workers and build alliances as part of its ongoing struggle to unionize low wage hotel and restaurant workers there.
Living wage campaigns have delivered real and immediate benefits to low-wage workers and their families throughout the United States:
THE MONIED OPPOSITION
In some cases, the industry counter-attack has been successful. The Washington Post led a crusade against a living wage bill proposed for Montgomery County, Maryland, a Washington, D.C. suburb, calling the bill "a formula for assisted economic suicide." With Marriott and other employers piling on, the bill went down to defeat.
More often than not, however, it is living wage proponents who prevail. In Santa Monica, large hotels sought to crush a local effort to win a living wage for workers who toiled as busboys, dishwashers, housekeepers and food servers in the posh hotels and restaurants of that city's gleaming "Coastal Zone." The hotels proposed their own "living wage" ballot initiative that would cover few workers and included fine print prohibiting future living wage ordinances. Thanks to an ambitious counter-campaign, voters rejected the measure by an 80-20 margin. Campaign spending reports revealed that the hotels spent over a million dollars to keep from paying their workers enough to survive.
In some cases, initial campaign setbacks are overcome, as in Chicago, where ACORN and SEIU shamed Mayor Daley and the City Council to revive a defeated living wage ordinance before raising their own salaries.
Industry opponents are now turning to new tactics. This past year saw the first two industry-backed lawsuits aimed at bringing down living wage laws (St. Louis and Berkeley). And opponents are increasingly seeking to enact state laws preempting local wage action - such laws already exist in Missouri, Arizona, Louisiana and Colorado and have been proposed in other states.
In general, the anti-living wage position parallels arguments against minimum wage increases - and the minimum wage itself. Critics say higher wages will deter contractors from bidding for contracts, cause them to hire fewer employees and deter would-be beneficiaries of government support from making investments.
As the living wage economic evidence continues to mount, however, these arguments have become increasingly untenable. A recent Business Week article entitled "What's So Bad About a Living Wage?" dramatized this trend. In the article, economist David Neumark, a favorite expert of living wage opponents, recanted his historic opposition to these laws. Another sign of the erosion of opponents' credibility is their increasing shift away from economic claims and a new focus on demonizing the labor-community coalitions that are pushing living wage ordinances.
As living wage campaigns continue to proliferate, they increase in strength and scope. This year, Santa Cruz set the highest living wage standard of $11 an hour ($12 if no health benefits are provided). More ordinances now cover both city service contractors and economic development. After a stunning campaign, the San Francisco ordinance became the movement's crown jewel, covering an estimated 22,000 workers, including non-profit social service workers and workers at firms located on city-owned property. "Place-based" living wage proposals also emerged this year, as Santa Monica proposed - and Berkeley won - an ordinance that applies to firms in a given upscale area, regardless of whether they have received city contracts or subsidies.
This year will witness the burgeoning of campaigns in Illinois, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Washington, Connecticut, Arkansas and New York (laws already exist in Minnesota and Maine). And in November, ACORN kicked off a new national campaign for a federal living wage with a day of action in 50 cities to support federal living wage bills by Representative Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, and Senator Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota.
Final confirmation of the growing importance of the living wage movement comes from one of its leading detractors, John Doyle of the Employment Policies Institute. "The phrase [living wage]," he says, "is seeping into the political vernacular and changing the dynamics of political discussion."