New Jersey voters overwhelmingly backed a minimum wage hike in November, increasing the state’s wage floor by a dollar and adding an annual indexing mechanism that should allow the minimum to keep pace with inflation.
This is good news for low-wage workers in the Garden State, who have seen their buying power drop to its lowest point since 1968. And it is good news for low-wage workers elsewhere in the country, because the New Jersey vote is part of a larger momentum shift that has dozens of states and cities engaged in battles to set new minimums.
New York is in the process of hiking its wage to $9 an hour, while California is talking about a $10.20 per hour wage. And SeaTac, the suburban community in Washington State that is home to a regional airport, has a $15 an hour minimum in its sights.
Even the timid centrist in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama, and his Democratic colleagues on Capital Hill – and not just populist firebrands like Sherrod Brown or Tom Harken – are saying they want a higher national minimum.
The rhetoric is simple: Low-wage workers deserve a raise. They can’t make ends meet on the $7.25 federal minimum – or even on the higher minimums in states like Nevada, California or Vermont. A higher wage will put more money in their pockets – a good thing in and of itself – and also create a broader stimulus as lower-income people spend their newfound earnings. (Critics dismiss this and say the wage increase will cost jobs.)
Another argument needs to be made, one hinted at by opponents to the wage hike in New Jersey. Raising the minimum wage is not just an economic issue, or a workplace issue. It cuts much more deeply.
Consider the prime argument made against the minimum wage made by the state’s Chamber of Commerce. The chamber endorsed a wage hike, but not the one on the ballot. The state Legislature had originally passed legislation increasing the minimum from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $8.50 with an indexing provision. Gov. Chris Christie used his conditional veto power – New Jersey governors can rewrite legislation and send it back to the Legislature – to eliminate the indexing, cut the wage increase back to $8.25 and phase it in over three years. The Legislature balked and instead voted to put the issue on the ballot.
This is key. New Jersey does not have initiative and referendum. Voters do not get a say on legislation in the state, only on the borrowing of money and on changes to the state constitution. The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, proposed the wage increase as a constitutional amendment.
This, said the state Chamber, amounted to special-interest tampering with what they were classifying as essentially a sacred document designed to protect broad individual rights – like speech and religion. The minimum wage, the Chamber and others said, is workplace- or contract-based issue.
This is a flawed premise. It is true that the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution – does not enumerate economic rights, but we can blame that on the biographies of its authors, who were landholding men with money. After all, the same group of men also maintained the institution of slavery and determined that women should not be allowed to vote.
The point is that when we talk about the minimum wage we are actually talking about setting a wage floor – about setting a dollar amount below which we as a society think no one’s hourly salary should fall. Franklin Roosevelt, in sending Congress the Fair Labor Standards bill (http://bit.ly/1iYa6NV), called a minimum wage – along with the right to organize in the work place, a maximum work week, and a ban on child labor – a necessary, if “rudimentary” standard to “protect the fundamental interests of free labor and a free people.” The “(f)ailure to observe” these standards, he said, “must be regarded as socially and economically oppressive and unwarranted under almost any circumstance.”
He doubled down on this rhetoric in January 1941, in his famed Four Freedoms address to Congress when he proclaimed that “freedom from want” was one of the four freedoms essential for free societies.
And what is a minimum wage, ultimately, but a floor below which wages should not fall, designed to give low-wage workers enough income to meet their most basic needs so that they can be free from want. They are the codification of this basic human right.
Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He writes for NJ Spotlight and teaches at Rutgers University and Middlesex County College. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org; blog, www.kaletblog.com; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook, facebook.com/hank.kalet.
From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2014
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