A look at the living wage/minimum wage campaigns on city and state ballots around the U.S.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Pacifica Radio’s daily, grassroots election show. I’m Amy Goodman. And this week, the first stage of the minimum wage hike went into effect, raising the federal minimum wage from $4.25 to $4.75 an hour. Because politicians have been reluctant to raise the minimum wage to a level that would actually take a full-time worker above the poverty line, grassroots activists around the country have been working on minimum wage and living wage campaigns, and there are statewide and citywide initiatives on the ballots in many places this November.
Joining us now to talk about these efforts are three people. Jen Kern and Lisa Donner are with us from ACORN here nationally in Washington, D.C., and Jen Kern is the national campaign researcher, Lisa Donner, legislative director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Benjamin Israel joins us from Missouri. He’s with the Campaign to Reward Work there.
And we welcome you all to Democracy Now! Well, let’s begin with Benjamin Israel. Your response to the lifting of the minimum wage this week here in Washington, actually, for all over the country?
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Well, actually, it’s the first raise in, I guess, five years. And most people who go five years without a raise have good reason to complain. When it comes to the minimum wage, the minimum wage back in 1968 was $1.60 an hour, but in 1996 dollars, that’s $7.20 an hour. So the minimum wage has been dropping drastically in buying power. And what we’re doing in Missouri is we have an initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $6.25 an hour on January 1st, if it passes. And that will make up for lost ground, but it actually — as you can tell, it’s not all the way up to $7.20 an hour. It would actually just basically bring the minimum wage in buying power back to the minimum wage roughly in 1979, when it was $2.90 an hour. The $6.25 was chosen because it’s almost exactly at the federal poverty level for a family of three. It’s actually just like $16 more than that, which is actually less than it really takes a family of three to make a living. And, you know, we believe that people who work for a living should be able to live in a decent place and have enough food to eat.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get your measure on the ballot? And who’s opposing it right now?
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Well, we had probably 300 volunteers gathering signatures around the state. We gathered more than 120,000 signatures. And after they were all excised, we needed 79,000, and we barely made it. That’s how we got it on the ballot.
There is an enormous effort against us. There’s a group called SOS Jobs Missouri, that was put together by the state Chamber of Commerce, the state Restaurant Association, the Associated Industries of Missouri, the National Federation of Independent Businesses. And they — actually, we got a campaign report. I don’t know what the total was, but they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’re intending to spend close to $3 million. And actually, my favorite contributor to them is PepsiCo. They gave $20,000. They’re the owners of —
AMY GOODMAN: Pepsi-Cola, for one.
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Yes, but they’re also the owners of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Chevy’s and — what’s the fourth one? — Kentucky Fried Chicken, which are all notorious low-wage employers. And their chief executive officer, a guy named Calloway, made the top 20 of highest-paid executives last year, that Businessweek put out. And their second-highest-paid — their second in command, a guy named Enrico, made the top five of Businessweek's non-CEO top-paid people in the country. So they can afford to give their people a raise, but they'd rather spend $20,000 to defeat it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask Lisa Donner, legislative director for ACORN here in Washington, how you answer this argument, that must be made all over the country when you have these minimum wage or living wage campaigns, that say, “We can’t afford to give a higher minimum wage, and jobs will be lost as a result.”
LISA DONNER: Well, I think there’s a bunch of answers. And I think one of them is what Benjamin was talking about, that the truth is the numbers, that the higher minimum wages that we’re talking about are not really sort of historically higher. They’re bringing the level of the minimum wage back to what it once was, back to what it’s been before. And if folks in the 1960s could afford to pay a minimum wage closer to $6.50 or $7, now that productivity is higher, that workers are better trained, we can certainly afford to pay that minimum wage if we could afford to pay it then.
And I think, again, the numbers that were being pointed out about the salaries that some of the CEOs of these low-wage employers are pulling in points out the fact that it’s not a question of what can be afforded, it’s a question of distribution, of whether it’s fair for the folks at the top of these corporations to be pulling in millions and millions of dollars while they’re getting away with paying the folks who do the work less than it takes to live, or whether we’re going to do something about making sure that people who work hard are actually getting something closer to a living wage.
AMY GOODMAN: Jen Kern, you’re the national campaign researcher for ACORN, which means you work with a lot of the field offices, helping them with research, giving them information. Do you find that a lot of the same corporations, like PepsiCo, that Benjamin is dealing with in Missouri, are behind the efforts to fight any kind of increase in the minimum wage at the state level, as well?
JEN KERN: Mm-hmm. And I think that these are the same corporations that oppose the federal increase in the minimum wage. And they also belong to a lot of trade associations that are taking the lead in cities and in states to fight any sort of measure that is on the ballot or moving through city council that would increase the wages of workers.
AMY GOODMAN: What are some of the other corporations outside of PepsiCo?
JEN KERN: We’ve seen Southland Corporation, which is the owners of 7-Eleven; some major hotels; a lot of trade associations that keep popping up, the National Restaurant Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which are big players and big lobbyers here in D.C. on sort of all sorts of anti-worker efforts.
AMY GOODMAN: Do restaurants fall under the same laws as other businesses? For example, because waiters and waitresses get tips, do they have to be paid the minimum wage?
JEN KERN: There’s a minimum wage for waiters and waitresses that allows for tip credits for employers. But they’re — like, the frontline workers at Taco Bell, for instance, would fall under the regular minimum wage.
LISA DONNER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Donner, what about the efforts, the initiatives, the referenda around the country? How many are there? And I notice that there are different kinds of these kind of living wage campaigns, from minimum wage to what you call corporate accountability.
LISA DONNER: There’s actually two kinds of ACORN-led campaigns, as you’ve said, that are going on in a couple different places. In Denver, Colorado, similar to what’s happening in Missouri, there is an initiative on the ballot people will get a chance to vote on in November that would raise the minimum wage to $6.50 for the city of Denver. And then, people just turned in the signatures in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to put a similar ballot initiative on the ballot there. Folks will vote in a special election this winter. And in Houston, Texas, they’re going to begin collecting signatures within the next couple days for a special election, which will also be in November. And beyond that, I should say, there are some other statewide minimum wage campaigns going on that ACORN is supportive of, though others are leading — in California, for example, and in Oregon.
Then, beyond that, in a couple cities, ACORN is working on what we call corporate accountability campaigns, that are campaigns to require businesses that get some kind of money from the city, whether it’s a city subsidy or a tax break or they get city contracts — so, corporations that are getting our city residents’ tax dollars — to pay something closer to a livable wage — and most of those wage rights are something in the $7.50-$7.70 range — and also to make best efforts to hire the low-income residents of those cities.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, because in New York, one of the people who’s running for mayor, a city councilmember named Sal Albanese, he pushed a living wage campaign that I believe was at something like $11.
LISA DONNER: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: And it passed.
LISA DONNER: Right, over the mayor’s veto. Right. And these — I think some of these numbers sound high to people at first brush. But we picked the $6-an-hour number in some places, because that’s close to the federal poverty line. But the truth is that the federal poverty line isn’t a very good measure of how much it takes to live, and that studies that actually look at how much does it cost to pay the rent and buy food and afford daycare for your children, you need an income of, depending on where you are, but something much closer to $8 and $9 and $7.50 and $10 and $11 to actually pay the bills.
AMY GOODMAN: Labor Secretary Robert Reich, on the day that the minimum wage was increased, said that while Americans are willing to allow market forces to decide most of what happens in this economy, there are exceptions — sweatshops, pension abuses, unsafe working conditions and discrimination — where society insists on imposing minimum standards. And he says that there is an implicit moral code that stands for the simple proposition that anyone who works hard should earn at least enough to keep themselves and their immediate families clothed, fed and sheltered. And yet, the minimum wage that has been signed, increasing the minimum wage right now to $4.75, that was pushed by the administration, this is not a livable wage.
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: And the administration did enforce it when they had a Democratic Congress. It would have made more sense to raise it three years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: What stopped them?
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: I don’t know. I guess they didn’t want to.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it seemed a very successful way to hammer the Republicans this time, when they were no longer in control, to say that Republicans didn’t care about working people.
LISA DONNER: Yes, it certainly was. And we think that the sort of grassroots efforts, like the campaigns that we’re working on, really helped. Though $4.75, $5.15 are certainly not enough, it’s a step, and I think these grassroots campaigns really did help move even that limited step, because it provided some evidence of just how strongly people felt about these issues.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Benjamin, let’s go to you out in the field in the Campaign to Reward Work in Missouri. Who are the people that support you? I mean, it seems to me that the lower down the scale you go, the less likely people are to vote, so that means the less likely politicians are to care about what you have to say.
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Yeah. Actually, we found that a lot of the people who signed our petitions were registered voters who actually hadn’t voted in a long time. The opposition originally was going to challenge our signatures because they accidentally got a list of what’s called “active voters,” which are people who have voted recently. And then they found out that there were a lot of signatures that were valid; they just weren’t active voters because they hadn’t bothered to vote. So, our job is to motivate people who don’t normally vote to come out to vote. And we’re also —
AMY GOODMAN: So, are you —
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: — actively registering people.
AMY GOODMAN: At the same time?
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Yeah. We estimate that if this passes, 700,000 people will get raises in Missouri. That’s an awful lot of people. There are roughly 3 million registered voters in Missouri. And if two-and-a-half million of them vote, 700,000, that’s a quarter of the voters. If each low-wage worker brings one friend, we’re just about there.
AMY GOODMAN: What signs do you have right now about whether or not this initiative will pass?
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Well, it’s hard to say, because we had a — we did a cheap poll a long time ago, and we showed that we had pretty strong majority support. But we are going to have to have that support sustained after a three-week barrage of ads that the opposition is intending to do. But I find — I’ve gone door to door, and I’ve talked to lots of people. And I was one of the people who circulated petitions. And a lot of people are very enthusiastic about this. When I was petitioning, sort of a typical thing, I’d be standing in front of a grocery store, and I’d say, “I’m circulating a petition,” and somebody would be walking quickly away from me. And then I said, “About raising the minimum wage,” and they’d stop dead in their tracks, get a big smile on their, turn around and sign it, and grab someone else and tell them to sign it, too. There’s an enormous reservoir of support among the grassroots for this.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I was looking at The Kansas City Star of a couple of weeks ago, an article on your calling for a $6.25 minimum wage, saying even that won’t do to take people out of poverty. And it quotes a woman who’s head of the Grace United Church in northeast area of Kansas City. She’s the food pantry director there. And she estimates that about 20% of the between 300 and 600 people the pantry helps each month — that’s about a fifth of the people they help — are full-time job holders who simply can’t feed their families. That’s an incredible figure.
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: I’ve heard of similar things from someone in St. Louis in just — St. Louis County, just south of St. Louis, in Lemay, at a food pantry there called Feed My People. And the people who run that, they survey their people. They said a full quarter of their people worked. And they went further and found what the wage levels of the people who worked were, and the average wage of a person who goes to the Feed My People food pantry and works is $5.75 an hour. So that would mean that the $4.75-an-hour minimum wage increase didn’t do them any good. But the $6.25 minimum wage increase would. And John DeGuire says — John DeGuire is the co-director of that food pantry. He’s one of the people who works real hard on this. The food pantries are working real hard on this, because they know what’s going on. He says that he’s in there because he just can’t bear to see people who work for a living who can’t put food on their table.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the administration’s attitude, the Democratic administration’s attitude, toward living wage campaigns, toward increasing the minimum at state levels or going for this living wage idea, corporate accountability?
LISA DONNER: I think we’ve sort of been dealing with the local politicians on these, because they are local campaigns. And frankly, while some have been supportive, there’s a lot of people who are made very nervous by these campaigns, by anything sort of out of the “let’s do things the way we’ve always done them.”
AMY GOODMAN: Democrats and Republicans alike?
LISA DONNER: Yeah.
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Governor Mel Carnahan, who’s a Democrat, came out against Proposition A. And every state —
AMY GOODMAN: Your proposition to increase the minimum wage.
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: Yes. And every statewide officeholder — and everyone but one is a Democrat — has come out against it. We have a total of four state legislators, all Democrats, who have officially endorsed it. And we have one who hasn’t officially endorsed it, but he actually circulated petitions in Kansas City. So we have a handful of legislators who have.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the reason, for example, Governor Carnahan gives not to provide a wage that people can live on?
BENJAMIN ISRAEL: I think it’s because he’s trying to raise money from big business. Big business is saying that jobs will leave from competition.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, what have you found, overall — let me put that question to Jen Kern — around the country? Do businesses leave when the minimum wage is picked up?
JEN KERN: Well, part of that answer comes from looking at studies that have been done that look at states that had raised their minimum wage when neighboring states did not, such as a study done by two economists, Card and Krueger, on the New Jersey minimum wage increase. And they looked at fast-food restaurants on both sides of the border and found that, indeed, that there was a negligible effect on jobs. The same type of study was done when California raised its minimum wage in 1988.
And the other part of the argument for that is to look at the kinds of jobs we’re talking about being affected by these increases, and they’re largely service jobs, retail jobs, jobs that count on the people that are in that area. You know, we argue that you’re not going to leave Denver to sell hamburgers to people who live in Denver. You can’t afford to lose that market. And so, these are the types of jobs we’re talking about getting the increase. We’re not talking about manufacturing jobs.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at your summary of ACORN’s living wage campaigns around the country: Denver, Colorado, Missouri, Chicago, New Orleans, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Albuquerque and Boston. And on the end, you have union endorsers to date. Where do unions stand? I mean, obviously, you pick up the wage, it helps everyone. It just picks up the wage everywhere.
LISA DONNER: Well, I mean, as you’ve said, there’s a long list of union endorsers of these campaigns. And it varies exactly what the coalition looks like. It’s different in every state and in every city. But in Chicago, for example, there’s a large group of unions who have been very active with us in this campaign, pursuing the campaign hard. The same has been true in Denver. The Denver Area Labor Federation was the first early endorser of the campaign, has been a very active supporter. I mean, the record is mixed. There are some unions that haven’t been supportive.
AMY GOODMAN: Like?
LISA DONNER: I’ll let the Missouri person talk about their experience there.
AMY GOODMAN: Benjamin Israel?
BENJAMIN ISRAEL:* Yeah. Well, I was just going to say that I could just say that the State Federation of Labor has not endorsed it. Somebody brought it up at the — actually, one of the leaders of UNITE, the merger of the clothing and textile and International Ladies Garment Workers Union — one of the leaders of that brought it up at the State Federation of Labor convention a few weeks ago, and it didn’t pass. The leadership, I guess, because they are so tied in with Governor Carnahan, decided not to endorse it. But they did say that individual unions could. And we have had a fair number of individual unions who have done some good work on it. UNITE in the St. Louis area has done some good work on it. The Teamsters in St. Louis have done good work on it. The Teamsters of Springfield, the postal workers of Springfield, the service employees in Kansas City, they’ve all been big help on this.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I should mention, actually — I should go through these, where we have stations that are airing Democracy Now! You’re talking about Denver, Colorado. That has a minimum wage campaign to increase the minimum wage to $6.50 in 1997, going to $7.15 in 1999. That has successfully gathered required signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Houston, Texas, as you said, raising the minimum wage to $6.50. Minneapolis-St. Paul organized joint Twin Cities task force to draft living wage policies for city contractors and subsidize employers. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, another minimum wage initiative raising the minimum wage to $6.50 an hour. Well, as we wrap up, I just wanted to get a quick hit on the other issues ACORN is working on. The 104th Congress has just gone out of session. Can you tell us about some of your victories and defeats?
LISA DONNER: Well, I think, unfortunately, some of our victories were negative victories, in the sense of things that we protected, but nonetheless very important. I think, at the beginning of this Congress, it looked very much like — or, the banks were pretty certain that the Community Reinvestment Act, which is the law — the only handle communities have, low-income communities have, for bringing credit into their neighborhoods, was going to be either destroyed or sort of weakened so much that it was left meaningless. And we are emerging from this Congress with the Community Reinvestment Act in place, which was an important victory. Another important victory, the Republican leadership, especially in the House, was moving a public housing bill that included very damaging provisions — rent increases for low-income tenants, changes that would have made it harder for the lowest-income people to get into public housing, occupancy standards that would have required — allowed landlords to set only two-people-per-bedroom limits, forcing people to rent larger and more expensive apartments. And that bill, you know, we were able to prevent the bad things from happening. And what happened was that bill just died.
AMY GOODMAN: What about defeats? Not that I want to end on that note.
LISA DONNER: Well, I mean, I think, sort of at the large scale, though we’ve managed — prevailed on that in the housing realm. To look at HUD’s budget now and HUD’s budget four years ago, it’s enormously smaller. There are no additional Section 8 vouchers. The need for affordable housing in this country gets worse every year, and we’re not doing anything — we’re doing less and less about it. The welfare bill, which was passed and signed, obviously, it’s a tremendously damaging piece of legislation. And we’re certainly going to be at work in a number of states trying to figure out ways to respond to that and effect state legislation.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for joining us. Do you have a phone number, if people want to get in touch with ACORN?
LISA DONNER: It’s 202-547-2500.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s 202?
LISA DONNER: 547-2500.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all very much for joining us, Jen Kern and Lisa Donner, the national office here of ACORN, and Benjamin Israel of the Campaign to Reward Work in Missouri. You’re listening to Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 60 seconds.