Harry Targ : Human Sustainability and the Living Wage

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The jobs/income problem:
How do we sustain human life?

Given the vision that animates the progressive majority and the need to build broad coalitions, rebuilding living wage campaigns could be an important part of its organizing future.

By Harry Targ | The Rag Blog | March 5, 2013

In one way or another progressives are addressing fundamental questions basic to human sustainability. And, as Pete Seeger has said: “Participation: that’s what’s going to save the human race.”

First, more and more activists are raising concerns about the survivability of the natural environment in which we live: the land mass, the water systems, the productivity of the land, and the capacity of humans to continue to live on the land. Most visible to the naked eye are consequences of global climate change, including hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, storms, and blistering heat.

Second, there is a growing discussion of problems of access to the rudimentary resources for the maintenance of human life: food, water, and air. Because of the devastations of the environment to distorted and inadequate systems of production and distribution, people are living in poverty, are malnourished, and remain exposed to toxic air and water.

Third, Samir Amin estimates that one-half to two-thirds of the global population lives in conditions of “precariousness.” That is, people lack access to secure jobs and income in global and national economies that systematically are able to produce more goods and services with fewer and fewer workers. However, global capitalism is based on a system of remuneration linking income to jobs. The need for fewer workers leads to fewer jobs and a downward spiral of wages and income.

Fourth, because of environmental devastation; declining access to food and clean air and water; and lack of the capacity to acquire monetary resources to sustain life, little time is left for discussions of what a better life and a better society might look like.

In this blog I will address the access to remuneration, reducing “precariousness,” and having the resources in a money economy to sustain life. Recently, discussion of that dimension of human sustainability has been stimulated by President Obama’s call for raising the minimum wage and the jobs/income crisis faced by workers as a result of the sequester crisis. The data is familiar to most people.

Wages and income

  • Economic Policy Institute analyses show clearly that worker productivity has increased over the last 40 years and wages have stagnated or declined with the exception of a bump in real wages during the late 1990s. For economist Lawrence Mishel, in terms of wages, the last decade has been “the lost decade.”
  • Wage stagnation has affected all sectors of the working population, including those with college degrees.
  • Wage and income inequality has increased dramatically over the last 40 years. As Mishel wrote: “This divergence has been demonstrated anew in the current recovery over 2009-2011 as real wages fell for the bottom 90 percent of the wage distribution but rose for the top five percent.”
  • African Americans and Latinos have experienced wage and job stagnation at rates at least a third higher than whites.
  • “The declining value of the minimum wage has played a key role in these trends…” (Mishel, February 21, 2013, Economic Policy Institute.)

Using the Indiana story to relate wages, jobs, and poverty:

  • Indiana’s job loss between 2008 and 2012 was 231,500.
  • Indiana is among 17 states that have continued to experience absolute declines in their labor force since the recession began.
  • Median family income fell by 29.6 percent in the past decade from $78,599 to $55,368. Only Michigan, among all states, has experienced a larger percentage decrease.
  • Since 2000, Indiana has seen a 52 percent increase in poverty. In 2010, 15.3 percent of Hoosiers were living in poverty, nearly 1 million people. Childhood poverty rates have increased by the same amount. (“Status of Working Families in Indiana, 2011,” Indiana Institute for Working Families, April, 2012).

One response: Living wage campaigns

From the 1990s to 2004 living wage campaigns all across the United States grew, drawing together coalitions of community activists, led by labor, faith communities, and grassroots organizations such as ACORN. Ralph Nader in a recent essay (Common Dreams, February 16, 2013) referred to an apt definition of a living wage proposed by Theodore Roosevelt at the 1912 Progressive Party convention:

We stand for a living wage… enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living — a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit a reasonable saving for our old age.

The first major living wage victory occurred in the Baltimore campaign of 1994. A local coalition consisting of AFSCME and a group of 50 churches called BUILD, Baltimorean’s United in Leadership Development won a very modest ordinance requiring that companies with city service contracts pay workers a base wage of $6.10 increasing to $7.70 over five years.

While modest, the Baltimore campaign inspired coalitions and demands all across the country. Between 1995 and 1999, 37 additional ordinances passed, sometimes including benefits with wage increases. In 2000-2001 mobilizations led to an additional 57 ordinances. By 2002, three-quarters of these ordinances required health care benefits and wage rates from $9.77 to $11.10 without health care.

An additional 70 campaigns were launched in small towns and big cities around the country, including New Orleans, Santa Monica, and San Francisco (S. Laurel Weldon and Harry Targ, “From Living Wages to Family Wages?New Political Science, March 2004).

Stephanie Luce, Professor of Labor Studies, Murphy Institute, CUNY, updated the living wage story in 2012. She said that since Baltimore much has been accomplished “…winning more than 125 living wage ordinances in cities and counties, three city minimum wages, and state and federal minimum wage increases. Eight states have indexed their minimum wage to inflation because of activist pressure, and campaigns to raise and index state minimums are underway in 10 more states.”

Luce also described problems with living wage campaigns. They tended to target small sectors of the working class (usually public employees). They often did not include part-time workers. Restrictive provisions were included in ordinances which excluded certain corporate investors from the wage and benefit requirements. Also campaigns have been long and difficult, with growing opposition from “big box” and other huge corporations.

On the other hand, she suggested that the value of such campaigns included the impetus living wage coalitions provided for building community coalitions. Often these coalitions supported union organizing drives. They brought together African-American, faith, and labor communities. They generated pressure for other campaigns such as for a minimum wage, prevailing wage, and worker rights.

For example, Luce reported:

After activists won a living wage in Tucson, Arizona, city workers contacted the Communications Workers and organized their own union….The San Francisco living wage coalition helped win card check from the airport commission, resulting in several thousand workers joining a handful of unions….The NEA has launched a national effort to use living wage campaigns as contract campaigns, to raise wages for school support staff.” (Labor Notes, February 27, 2012).

Luce concluded that: “Many living wage campaigns were launched not because they were the best policy available but because they could use leverage where activists were most likely to have it: at the local level.”

Are living wage campaigns still relevant today?

Although some living wage campaigns continue, often expanding their projects to include support for minimum wages, union organizing, and other local campaigns, 9/11, two wars, and the 2008-2012 recession reshaped the agenda of progressive groups. Assaults on worker rights throughout the heartland required mobilizing to save jobs, oppose Right-to-Work laws, protect the right of public employees to form unions, and resist the privatization of every conceivable public institution.

However, given the vision that animates the progressive majority and the need to build broad coalitions, rebuilding living wage campaigns could be an important part of its organizing future.

Living wage campaigns address one of the issues of sustaining humankind mentioned above: jobs, income, and remuneration.

They would resonate with workers who survive on wages just above existing minimum wage laws.

They could work in conjunction with and parallel to mobilizations around minimum wage and jobs campaigns.

And, if the history of such campaigns is a good predictor, living wage campaigns would bring together broad coalitions of workers, faith-based activists, activists from African American and Latino communities, and activists for reproductive health.

Finally, living wage campaigns, whether committed to federal or local legislation in the past, have been grassroots movements shaped by local conditions and the particularities of organizing possibilities at the local level. Building a progressive majority requires parallel and interconnected organizing at the grassroots level and the national level. Each is informed by the other. And ultimately sustaining human life is both a global and a local project.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. Read more of Harry Targ’s articles on The Rag Blog.]

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3 Responses to Harry Targ : Human Sustainability and the Living Wage

  1. Leslie C. says:

    Here in Austin, The Workers Defense Project/Proyecto Defensa Laboral has waged campaigns to get both the county (Travis) and the city to require that companies getting economic incentives and tax breaks pay at least $11/hr to construction workers.

    Working with WDP/PDL are building trades unions, community groups, religious groups, and even environmentalists.

    (So now a conservative legislator from Dallas has introduced a bill in the state legislature prohibiting cities from requiring any minimum wages in their incentive contracts. He says he is doing so at the behest of minority contractors who say they cannot afford to pay higher wages and will therefore not be able to bid competitively for work on these projects. Interesting angle.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    You cite Ralph Nader’s recent essay, “Common Dreams, February 16, 2013” where in Nader writes: “Catching up with a 1968 federal minimum wage of $10.50, inflation adjusted, should be a winnable goal this year.”
    Don’t this sound all rosy and idyllic??
    Here are some realities, so one could actually LIVE on a “1968 federal minimum wage of $10.50, inflation adjusted…”
    Gasoline was $0.25/gallon in ’68– $0.18 for a “no-name” regular. (higher back east.. it was $0.339 for a brand name 100 Octane “Ethyl”)
    $15,000 bought a damn nice 3-2-2 BRICK House, all amenities, in a very nice neighborhood.
    A BRAND NEW Automobile barely cracked the $2000 mark.. Hell, a NEW Jaguar E-Type was in the $5,000 neighborhood.
    Our car insurance, for two cars in Texas, for a YEAR, liability only, cost LESS than $100 for TWO “Under 25” drivers! Now we pay over $100 Per Car each six months (same insurance company!)
    A parent could outfit THREE Kids in all new clothes right before school started (in September!) for UNDER $150 TOTAL.. We are talking a weeks worth of clothes for each child!
    A MONTHS worth of groceries cost about $150 (for a family of FIVE AND included several Steak Dinners each week!)
    For the ’66 Fall Semester of (then) Arlington State College (UTA now), I paid $50 tuition.. books were another $50. My wife plunked down $500 per semester at TCU (books about $75 extra) My wife and I had used cars purchased for $300 or less, each. (we bought our first new car in 1970 for $2850!)
    We paid $45/month rent for half of a duplex.. in 1971 we rented a two bedroom HOUSE w/separate two car garage for $112.50/month!
    (In 1973 we bought a 2000sq ft 3-2-3 Brick, P&B, all built-ins, WBFP, Den, formal living & dining, [on 3/10 acre] for $25,000! Now, a smaller house on a “postage stamp” lot, is a quarter million!!)
    I might also note, I made $1.35/hour in 1967.. minimum wage was $1.25, and we had MORE “discretionary funds” then as opposed to now on a $30k/year income!!
    So, Hell, Yeah, I’ll take $10.50 and hour AS LONG AS the 1968 Cost of Living comes with it!!!!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Couple questions for you Charles:
    Are you still complaining about the “quarter million dollar” house on the postage sized lot when you are the seller.? Do you lower the price by half so you can reduce the housing price inflation in your local market? Of course you dont. You try to get the best deal for your house, or used car, or job skills that you can. Newsflash Charles, so does everyone else!!

    As for the Living Wage effort. Here is a newsflash for the author. If someone doesn’t get enough education, or the right kind of education (that includes journalists and any college major that has the word “studies” in it), or job skills and now they cant use their education or skills to support themself, then in the words of Jeff Foxworthy, “I cant fix stupid.”

    Any wage you make is a “iiving wage” if you live within your means. Somehow we have reached a place of societal decline where people working at HEB think their wage should entitle them to home ownership, nice cars, and rooms full of furniture. All of these of course paid for with borrowed money that traps the borrower in mountains of debt. I would much rather all you whiny progressives start teaching people about personal responsibility. i.e. If you are living a lifestyle on borrowed money and no savings, then your an idiot. You make yourself a victim so dont complain when you are victimized. If you find that you dont like the meager existence you can afford while living “within your means” then do something about it. Start a business, or get more experience or education. However of course, such an approach to life requires the mindset that you are in charge of your own life and reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of the choices you make.

    The living wage effort is nothing more than reinforcement to those who see themselves as “victims” of greedy rich people and in no way responsible for the life they are living. That in fact, is an accurate definition of the “Progressive” mindset 🙂

    And that folks, is why there is so much opposition to the living wage effort by those of use who “dont” see ourselves as victims.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

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