My name is Roxanne Mimms and I work for a food service contractor at the National Zoo. I work full time but make barely minimum wage. I’m here because workers can’t live off what contractors pay us. I’m here because I don’t want my two children to grow up on public assistance. I’m here because I have dreams – My American Dream is a good job with fair wages to provide for my children, being able to pay my bills on time and save for the future. I’m here because I want to help all the workers at the National Zoo whose dreams are on hold.”
The strikes of fed-up fast-food workers move westward with the sun. On Wednesday evening, fast-food employees in St. Louis, like their peers in New York and Chicago earlier this spring, staged a one-day strike to dramatize the low wages they, and millions of American workers in the restaurant and food sectors, take home.
Yesterday—April 24th—was a red-letter day in the annals of worker mobilization in post-collective-bargaining America. In Chicago, hundreds of fast-food and retail employees who work in the Loop and along the Magnificent Mile called a one-day strike and demonstrated for a raise to $15-an-hour and the right to form a union. At more than 150 Wal-Mart stores across the nation, workers and community activists called on the chain to regularize employees’ work schedules. And under pressure from an AFL-CIO-backed campaign of working-class voters who primarily aren’t union members, the county supervisors of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County voted to raise the local minimum wage.
It’s not getting better. That’s the key finding of a new survey of low-wage workers out yesterday from the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago. Eighty-one percent of low-wage employees surveyed said their family’s financial situation was the same or worse than it had been four years ago, while 64 percent reported that their wages have been stagnant or declined over the past five years. The survey queried 1,606 workers earning $35,000 or less annually.
This past January was the deadliest month in Chicago in more than a decade. Forty-two people lost their lives on the city’s streets, most of them to gun violence. For 2012, the total number of homicides was 509, of which 443 involved firearms. While most of the shootings could be attributed to gang feuds, innocent people were caught in crossfire that often erupted in broad daylight and on public streets.
The release of 2012 minimum-wage data last Wednesday—which shows that the number of minimum wage workers has fallen but is still higher than any period since 1998—has underscored the importance of making good on Obama’s pledge of raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. As many have pointed out, women stand to benefit disproportionately from the increase: Two-thirds of the country’s roughly 1.6 million minimum-wage workers are women.
A new bill introduced today by Senator Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and more importantly, peg it to inflation so that it would automatically adjust. The proposed wage hike is higher than the $9 per hour proposed by President Obama and is closer to what the minimum wage would be now if it had kept up with the rate of inflation. The bill also increases the tipped wage, which has not risen in twenty years.
Cristina Romer, Berkeley economics professor and the former head of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, passed judgment on the merits of raising the minimum wage in Saturday’s New York Times, and in the process made clear why she wasn’t a member of the president’s de facto council of political advisers. She argued, as some mainstream economists do, that the merits of a heightened minimum wage were slight—that it may, for instance, raise prices, offsetting the gain to low-wage workers.
If Republicans have any political sense at all, they’ll support not just raising the minimum wage, but indexing it.
The economic case for raising the wage, at a time when economic inequality is rampant, working-class incomes are declining, and Wal-Mart sales are falling through the floor, is overwhelming. But while Republicans may blow off the economic consequences of not raising the federal standard, they can’t be so cavalier in dismissing the political consequences.
Raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 should be a no-brainer. Republicans say it will cause employers to shed jobs, but that’s baloney. Employers won’t outsource the jobs abroad or substitute machines for them because jobs at this low level of pay are all in the local personal-service sector (retail, restaurant, hotel, and so on), where employers pass on any small wage hikes to customers as pennies more on their bills. States that have a minimum wage closer to $9 than the current federal minimum don’t have higher rates of unemployment than do states still at the federal minimum.
One morning earlier this year, in the borderland town of Brawley, California, 75-year-old Ignacio Villalobos perched on a chair in his trailer, removed a plastic bag from the well of a rubber boot, and finished dressing for work. Dawn was still an hour away, and in the wan light of the kitchen, Villalobos took off his house sandals and pulled the bag over his right foot. He bunched it at the ankle, then slipped his foot into his boot.
“These shoes aren’t made for water,” he said, adding that morning dew and irrigation keep farm fields damp—even in the desert of the Imperial Valley where he was working. Villalobos estimated that a pair of decent used boots would run him $30, almost half a day’s wages; the bags were free.
We have two basic poverty problems in the United States. One is the prevalence of low-wage work. The other concerns those who have almost no work.
The two overlap.
Most people who are poor work as much as they can and go in and out of poverty. Fewer people have little or no work on a continuing basis, but they are in much worse straits and tend to stay poor from one generation to the next.
The numbers in both categories are stunning.
Low-wage work encompasses people with incomes below twice the poverty line—not poor but struggling all the time to make ends meet. They now total 103 million, which means that fully one-third of the population has an income below what would be $36,000 for a family of three.
Well, sure, women are the richer sex, if by "richer" you mean "making less money." If you take some tiny demographic slices—single, childless college-educated women in major urban areas—those women make more than men their age. But enough of me blathering. Here's some stats:
Say you’ve got a booming industry, one that already employs 2 million workers in the U.S. and is poised to add 1.3 million additional jobs by 2020. Imagine that the jobs cannot be off-shored, that the work helps decrease federal deficits, and millions of Americans depend on the industry just to get through their daily lives.
Now ask yourself: Should it be legal to pay the workforce of this thriving and essential industry less than the minimum wage?