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Know Your Rights
Source: In These Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Urban Communities Seek Lift Through Living Wage

Economic indicators may be bouncing
back this holiday season, but the working poor aren’t so lucky. As they’re
forced to work harder for less pay and bills pile up, the floor seems to be
falling out from under them.


But one thing that’s rising is a
grassroots movement for living wages. Recent actions in New
York City
and Los Angeles
show that a combination of equitable social policy and local pressure can
"raise the floor” for struggling workers.


Today, 14 states and the District of Columbia
have set a wage floor higher than the federal minimum, which, according to the
Economic Policy Institute, has steadily eroded in value since the 1960s. Still,
even those standards often fall well below what’s needed to sustain a
household. (The statewide minimum wage of $8 per hour in Massachusetts, according to the Living Wage
Project, is merely one-quarter of the income needed to support a two-adult,
two-child family.


To help narrow the gap between low
wages and human needs, a grassroots movement has pushed for living wage
ordinances, which typically set a pay standard for employers contracted in
government-sponsored projects. Nationwide, scores of cities have lifted up the
wage floor to help ensure that taxpayer investments don’t condemn working
people to poverty.


In the Bronx,
a plan to build a mall at the Kingsbridge Armory fell through when City Council
members tried to push a $10 an hour wage as part of the deal. The Council
recently rejected the proposal and overrode the Mayor’s veto. Of course, the
collapse of the deal would deprive the community of some jobs in the immediate
term. But the campaign has shown what workers can gain when they refuse to
settle for whatever the developer is willing to dole out.


According to an analysis by the Drum
Major Institute, despite the developer’s promises of job creation, “the retail
jobs created at the Armory will not allow families to survive without public
assistance.” That means that unless the government compelled employers to offer
sustainable wages, the government would pick up the tab in the long run through
social welfare costs. Though employers complain that higher wage standards
constrain growth, DMI’s John Petro challenges the quantity-vs-quality binary:
Economic development subsidies are intended to create new jobs in the city by
helping businesses relocate or expand their operations here. But job quality
matters just as much as the number of jobs created.


When the city subsidizes
poverty-level wages, it pays twice. First, taxpayer dollars are diverted from
schools, infrastructure, and other city needs. Then taxpayer dollars must go
towards programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance, and other
social services that are needed by the workers in city subsidized jobs who
still cannot make ends meet.


The Armory showdown could shape
future discussions about “responsible development” in a city fraught with
extremes of wealth and destitution. According to the Observer, labor advocates
may soon look forward to debating citywide and statewide living-wage
initiatives that would tie pay standards to government contracts.


Over in Queens,
Make The Road New York has staked out a major urban mall as the next
battleground in the living-wage fight. A few days after the City Council vote,
the group rallied at the Queens Center Mall, which employs over 3,000 people,
to demand that the mall require employers to pay a minimum of $10 per hour or
$11.50 without benefits (up from the typical hourly wage of $7.25). It would be
a modest holiday bonus: according to the Living Wage Calculator, even two
parents earning $10 an hour wouldn’t make a living wage that would support a


The campaign’s platform for just
development calls for not only living wage jobs, but protections for the right
to join a union, as well as access to schools, public spaces, and other
community resources. The campaign folds into a nationwide movement for
“community benefits agreements,” contracts that provide local workers and
families with an equitable stake in future development.


Those efforts would be boosted by
reforms to the federal minimum wage. For example, indexing the federal baseline
to the average wage, as proposed by the EPI, would foster consumer spending and
economic recovery, and more importantly, detach the minimum wage issue from
partisan bickering on the Hill; currently, the bare minimum pay rate is
dictated not by economic trends but the political whims of Congress.


Although the proposed federal
minimum wage hike would hardly close the country’s pervasive wealth gap, some
16 million people would receive a direct raise, and a total of some 23 million
would see some kind of income benefit due to the “spillover” effect. The
workers who tend to be the least economically secure have the most to gain from
a minimum wage hike. Blacks and Latinos would benefit disproportionately, as
would workers in the service sectors and retail trades.


None of those benefits will
materialize without follow-through from employers, though. A landmark study on
low-wage workers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago
found that minimum wage requirements are routinely flouted, especially for
vulnerable groups like undocumented immigrants and domestic workers. According
to the researchers, about 25 percent of workers “were paid less than the
legally required minimum wage in the previous work week.”


has a living wage ordinance, but that didn’t stop Cintas,
an industrial laundry company, from cheating hundreds of employees, according
to a recent lawsuit. It was only when the workers organized, with the help of
Workers United, that the company straightened up. Last week, the workers got a
$6.5 million settlement.


No living wage proposal would
survive in the political arena or the workplace without a vibrant grassroots
movement to hold officials and employers accountable. In the end, the leverage
isn’t the law itself, but the community’s conviction that meaningful
development is more complicated than constructing a mall and filling it with
warm bodies. The dignity of earning a real living, after all, is priceless.