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A living wage for all

Cliff DuRand

By Cliff DuRand

Every working USian ought to receive a living wage. He/she should not have to rely on public handouts or private charity to get by. The employer who benefits from their work ought to pay at least enough for his workers to live at a decent level.

Yet, a full time worker in the US who receives the federal legal minimum wage of $7.25-an-hour is below the poverty level. They are among the working poor. And it is such low wage work that is the main growth sector of the economy, as Jeff Faux points out in The Servant Economy. It is corporate giants like WalMart and McDonald’s that are leading the way in this Third Worldization of the US. More than half of fast food workers are on public assistance, costing taxpayers an estimated $7 billion yearly.

The fightback against this has begun. Fastfood workers are demonstrating in 100s of cities. Local and state leaders have responded in many places by setting their own minimum wage above the federal level. The city council in Washington DC recently raised the minimum wage there to $11.50-an-hour in coordination with Maryland suburban counties so employers won’t flee, creating a region of 2.5 million residents who enjoy a minimum wage higher than any of the 50 states.

This makes for good business, with more content workers who are also better able to be consumers. Our economy needs increased effective consumer demand to generate job growth. Raising wages, particularly at the bottom, is a step in that direction. Lower wages may help boost corporate profits in the short run, but they do not produce a prosperous economy. If they did, Mexico with its 62 pesos per DAY minimum wage would be booming.

Back in the 1990s my home city of Baltimore was the first to pass a living wage law, requiring any company that did business with the city government to pay a minimum wage that increased annually with the cost of living. Following that example, students at The Johns Hopkins University, the largest private employer in Maryland, demanded that their university do likewise. That struggle continues today. Currently, students, faculty and staff at the small public St. Mary’s College in southern Maryland are demanding that it pay the lowest employee at least 1/10 of what the highest (the president) receives, thereby also addressing the outlandish CEO income gap.

The sad reality is that real incomes for most USians have been stagnant for the last three decades, largely as a result of globalization and anti-union practices of corporations. National political leaders have been complicit in this. And this downward pressure on incomes is likely to continue unless citizens can move government in the direction of the common good. With the weakening of unions, they have not been able to do so against their employers. But local struggles to raise the minimum wage are beginning to set an example for the national level –one of the virtues of our federal system. Currently 19 states have minimum wages above the federal level. President Obama is beginning to feel the winds of this change.

[next: Reduce Wealth Inequality]

Cliff DuRand is a Research Associate at the Center for Global Justice and author and co-editor of Recreating Democracy in a Globalized State.


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