Public Comment

The Minimum Wage: The Good, the Bad, and the Very Bad

Harry Brill
Friday January 12, 2018 - 04:49:00 PM

A clear reflection of the disinterest and insensitivity of the federal government to the needs of working people is its refusal to raise since 2009 the deplorably low minimum wage of $7.25. Meanwhile prices have continued to climb. No government official has proposed limiting costs. So the federal minimum wage is worth 10 percent less since its last increase. Since 1968 its value after adjusting for inflation is 25 percent lower. Had the minimum wage over the years kept up to the increase in worker output, it would have climbed to about $22 an hour. 

Nevertheless, many cities and states, in response to pressure from organized labor and community groups, have enacted minimum wage legislation that exceed the federal level. So far 29 states and D.C. have higher minimum wage laws, and about 12 cities as well. But the respective approaches of states and cities are on the whole very different. 

18 states increased the minimum wage in the beginning of this new year. The mass media was full of praise. Of course, an increase in wages is generally good news. However, absent from the media was how little some of these increases have been. Workers in Alaska received a four cents an hour increase, from $9.80 to $9.84. Hourly wages for Ohio workers climbed only 15 cents, from $8.18 to $8:30 cents. There was no annual increase in most states. Hourly wages In 37 cities remain below $10 an hour. That's almost 75 percent of the entire country. In none of the states does the minimum provide working people with an escape from poverty wages. 

Many cities and counties however, have joined the $15 an hour movement. In Berkeley, the current wage of $13.75 an hour will increase to $15 this coming October and will also include an annual cost of living adjustment. Los Angeles is the largest city in the country to embrace the $15 an hour wage, which will go into effect in 2020. In San Francisco, the $15 an hour wage, which will be implemented this year, was achieved by a ballot measure supported by over 75 percent of the voters. California is the one state where its legislature voted to increase wages to $15 an hour but not until 2022. However, that's four years down the road. In all the cities that voted for the $15 an hour wage, the time will arrive sooner.  

Two of the California counties that have voted for a $15 an hour wage by 2020 are Los Angeles and Riverside counties. The increase applies to all workers in the cities and towns that are part of these counties but are not incorporated. That is, unlike the city of Los Angeles, they have no formal government of their own other than the county that they are part of. So the minimum wage law has a large geographical spread.  

But there is also very bad news. Big business has persuaded many state legislatures to adopt preemptive legislation. These laws deprive local communities of the right to enact minimum wage laws as well as other legislation that would improve working conditions, including paid sick leave and fair scheduling of working hours. So far business interests have been successful in at least 26 states. Among the results is that 21 states are stuck with the federal minimum of $7.25. Moreover, the preemptive laws allows the state to ignore the higher minimum wage that a local community had approved. For example, St. Louis raised the minimum wage to $10 an hour. But Missouri's preemption law allowed the higher wage to be rolled back to the state wage of $7.70 an hour. 

In Alabama, the race issue with regard to wages has been a major concern of black workers. In the city of Birmingham white workers earn $1.43 cents more per hour on average than black wage earners. Also the poverty rate is much higher for blacks. Although Alabama is 75 percent white, Birmingham is 73 percent black. Birmingham was the only Alabama city to enact a minimum wage law. The Birmingham council passed a minimum wage ordinance that raised the minimum wage to 10.10 an hour. Of those who would have benefited from the higher wage 70 percent are African Americans. However a preemptive law nullified the increase. The law is being challenged in court because of its racist implications. But the chances of it being overturned is very, very slim. 

The labor movement, by striking and engaging in collective bargaining, has achieved major gains for working people. But big business and its allies in government have successfully gutted Labor's influence. As a result, labor density in the private sector has shrunk from 35 percent in the 1950s to 6.4 percent currently. Moreover, the increasing influence of the Republican Party has been devastating. The Republicans have captured the governorship in 34 states, which is over two thirds. They also make up the majority of the two houses in 32 states. In 2010 it was a majority in only 14 states. 

About Labor's future, there is much work to be done. Among the major tasks is getting the Republicans off their backs in this year's November elections. That is not only important: It is critical and necessary.  

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