David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Putting Wages on the Ballot in November
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (1/27/96) - For over a decade, conservative Republicans have used the state's initiative process to shape California politics. From Proposition 13 to Proposition 187, initiatives appealing to white midle-class suburban voters have increased Republican turnout, eventually giving the party control of the governor's house and one chamber of the legislature.

The Republican Party is trying the same tactic this coming November. The California Civil Rights Initiative, which despite its name would actually abolish affirmative action in the state, is gathering signatures to get on the ballot. But this time around the onslaught of Republican voters it seeks to bring out may meet an equally, or even more powerful onslaught from below.

That's just one of the hopes which backers of the Living Wage Initiative have for this November - that their proposal will electrify low-wage workers and the poor, bringing them out to vote in record numbers. This strategy may not only have as great an impact on the state's economy as Proposition 13. It may also give California to the President, and sweep Democrats back into office just as Proposition 187 swept them out.

For eight years, the minimum wage hasn't increased a cent from $4.25 per hour. In the meantime, the cost of living has gone up 25%. That means that minimum wage earners have in fact lost purchasing power every year. In effect, their wages have gone down. Their situation has grown so desperate that at the beginning of January a coalition of labor and community organizations began circulating petitions to put an initiative on the ballot in November which would raise the minimum wage. If the Living Wage Initiative qualifies for the ballot, and voters approve it, the minimum wage would rise to $5.00 an hour in 1997, and to $5.75 an hour in 1998. It would cover all private-sector workers in the state.

The Living Wage Coalition, which wrote the initiative and prepared the petitions, includes the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, religious organizations like the California Council of Churches, community agencies like the United Neighborhoods Organization, and advocacy groups like Sweatshop Watch, Equal Rights Advocates, the Consumer Federation of California, and the Congress of California Seniors.

For Rose Fua, an attorney for Equal Rights Advocates, the importance of the initiative lies first in its effect on minimum wage workers themselves. "We have to understand the human cost of low wages - their effect on the people who are trapped by them," she says. "They have to choose every day between food or rent, between clothes or a visit to the doctor."

That was the experience of Santos Guerrero, who worked for two long years for the Grand D sewing factory in San Francisco. She sewed shirts, dresses and other clothes for Espirit, Macy's, JC Penneys, and other big labels. She knew that she was sewing fancy clothes; they looked a lot more expensive than any she could buy for herself or her children. But for a long time she could only imagine how much they actually cost.

"Then I was in Macy's once with a friend from work," Guerrero remembers, "and we saw a nightgown that we had sewn in the shop. They were selling it for $300. We couldn't believe how much they were getting for it."

For sewing $300 nightgowns, Guerrero was earning California's minimum wage - $4.25. When she was working normal 40-hour weeks, she would bring home $260 in her paycheck twice a month. When there was a lot of work, and she put in 10- and 12-hour days, the most she ever made was $350.

If the state's economy persists in a seemingly-unendable economic slump, this enormous disparity is part of the reason. The minimum wage is so low that those workers who earn it can't afford most of the goods and services they produce themselves. And since over 1.5 million workers labor for the minimum wage, a big part of the state's entire workforce, their lack of purchasing power puts the brakes on the whole economy.

"In the supermarket," Guerrero says, "my children would ask for things they couldn't have." She has two boys age 9 and 14, and two girls age 5 and 16. She's a single mother. "I remember when my oldest girl asked for a can of oatmeal. I told her, 'if I buy you this, I can't buy eggs. I can only get what we need the most.' All we buy are the most basic foods - rice, beans, bread, things like that.

"When I was in that factory, we never went to the movies. Once my son's school organized a trip for the kids to Great America. Each student had to have $18. I couldn't give it to him, so he didn't go. He was very upset. I told him, 'how can I give you $18? If I do, we won't eat this week.' But the hurt, you know, it doesn't pass so easily."

Establishing a minimum wage was originally intended to keep workers like Guerrero out of poverty, not to trap them in it. The law which established the minimum was passed by the legislature in 1913, part of the wave of worker and consumer protection laws spawned by the Progressive Party movement which swept the country at the beginning of the century. The act was signed into law by Governor Hiram Johnson, a Republican from the era when that party still tried to appeal for the loyalty and votes of workers and the poor.

The law set up the Industrial Welfare Commission, and in 1937 the legislature charged it with conducting "a full review of the adequacy of the minimum wage at least once every two years." After the review, on its own authority, the commission can then decide to raise it. The IWC consists of five members, appointed by the governor. Two come from labor, two from business, and a final, tie-breaking member is chosen from the public sector.

When George Deukmejian was elected governor in 1982, however, he began appointing commissioners that unions say were unwilling to fulfill the IWC's mandate, a pattern they believe continues under Pete Wilson. The two current management members, Doug Cornford and Robyn Black, are Republican management executives. The public member is John McCarthy, a university professor who was previously an appointee in the administrations of Wilson and Deukmejian. Robert Hanna, the retired president of the California Council of Carpenters, is one union representative, but the other is Donald Novey. Novey heads the prison guards union, which is not a part of the AFL-CIO, and which has given tens of thousands of dollars to Wilson's and Deukmejian's election campaigns, in return for the vast expansion of the prison system.

The IWC has only recommended one increase in the last 14 years of Republican state administrations. Following that hike, in 1988, the commission held only one set of hearings to review the need for possible increases, instead of the biannual review required by law. Despite protests from unions, none of the hearings were even scheduled for Los Angeles, although LA has the greatest concentration of minimum-wage workers in the United States.

State Senator Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, convened a hearing of the Senate Committee on Industrial Relations in July, to consider SB 500, which she authored, and which would raise the wage to $5.75 in two steps. But Republican control of the assembly and the governor's mansion make its enactment impossible.

California Labor Federation executive secretary-treasurer Jack Henning has testified at almost every IWC meeting, demanding wage reviews and increases. "The commission has refused to live up to its legal obligation and responsibility," he declares. "With a Republican majority in the Assembly and a Republican governor, there's no way to raise the minimum wage by passing a bill through the legislature. If the people of California want the minimum wage to go up, they must act themselves."

Inaction by the commission has led to a minimum wage which is at a forty-year low, taking inflation into account. To simply restore it to the value of its purchasing power of the late 1970s, it would have to rise to $6.00 an hour. The poverty line established by the Federal government for a familyof three requires an hourly wage of $6.05. "I think you can legitimately ask if $5.00 and $5.75 is enough of an increase," Fua comments, "if that's really a living wage. But we have to start somewhere. And if we can win this increase, it improves our chances to push it up further."

Guerrero was a witness before the commission in 1995. She described for commissioners the impact of the minimum wage on her family, and appealed for a review and a raise. The commissioners ignored her, as they did the myriad other witnesses who have offered similar testimony over the past decade.

Instead, the commission has listened attentatively to assertions by trade associations representing fast food franchises, convalescent homes, and other employers of low-wage labor. They have offered the IWC a number of rationales for maintaining the existing wage.

If the minimum wage rises, they say, it would raise labor costs. Employers then would hire fewer workers. This arguement, which is repeated not only by the commissioners representing employers, but by the public commissioner as well, infuriates unions. "The commission isn't even suppossed to examine this question," explains Richard Holober, who heads the Living Wage campaign for the California Labor Federation. "Their mandate is to ensure that the wage is high enough to support a decent life, not to engage in arguements over how many jobs can be produced by keeping it low. And in any case, all the available studies show that raising the minimum wage is good for business, and produces jobs."

At the IWC hearing in San Francisco in July, an employer even broke ranks, and agreed with that assessment. The men in dark suits and expensive loafers from the restaurant and hospital associations had daggers in their eyes, as they heard Barry Hermanson, who owns a temp agency in San Francisco, tell commissioners that he pays $8-10 an hour. "Job flight out of California isn't caused by the minimum wage being raised," he said.

Many economists agree that job creation is a function of economic activity, which goes up when the bottom wage level rises. Despite dire predictions from employers that jobs would flee California after the minimum wage was increased in 1988, no study ever documented that it happened. The number of low-wage jobs in the state has actually increased, and job flight has affected overwhelmingly jobs at higher wages. Holober notes that two studies from New Jersey showed that when the minimum wage went up, the number of jobs actually increased.

Employer representatives also told commissioners that people earning minimum wage are mostly teenagers, and people with no family to support. But 80% of the workers who would be covered by the Living Wage Initiative are adults. Working women are more likely to be low wage earners, and many, like Guerrero, are heads of households.

These are the people who have the most to gain by the passage of the initiative. Presumably, they would be interested in going to the polls and voting for it. Holober emphasizes that "it really pushes the issue of the decline in the income of working families right into the middle of the election." And that raises the stakes considerably for November, 1996.

Normally, a smaller percentage of poor people and low-wage workers go to the polls than middle-income or affluent voters. The trend over the last few decades is that this gap in voter turnout is widening. The increase in the gap, in turn, has helped to push the vote up for conservative Republicans, and push it down for more liberal Democrats. The whole political spectrum in electoral politics has movedto the right as a result. This shift has affected swing districts particularly, where voter registration for Republicans and Democrats is evenly matched. Republican voters turn out to vote, and a lot of Democrats don't.

"That's because poor people and working families often don't see a lot to vote for," according to Frank Martin del Campo, a representative for Service Employees Local 790, and a Latino community activist. The Living Wage Initiative could change the prospect of a further rightward shift. By bringing poor and working-class voters to the polls, it might lead to the defeat of CCRI, and shift the balance of power in the Legislature and Congress back towards the Democrats. It might also improve the election prospects of President Clinton, who needs to win California to gain a second term.

"I find this prospect very exciting," Martin del Campo concludes. "In the labor movement we talk alot about the importance of low-wage workers. I believe that our commitment, as advocates for workers and our communites, has to be deep and ongoing, beyond November. This is a good test of it."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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