The disappearing American promise: Honest work, honest wage

January 17, 2014

By: Raina J. Johnson
Special to The Milwaukee Times


Earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called to raise the minimum wage: “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour. We should be able to get that done. This single step would raise the income of millions of working families. It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead.” Elected officials and a nation full of hard-working Americans, primarily in the fast food, retail and home and health care industries have responded to the call.
A Democratic senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Representative George Miller (D-CA) introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by the year of 2015.
Workers in the fast food and retail industries from all across the country are urging elected officials to raise the federal minimum wage which stands at $7.25 an hour. The last increase to the federal minimum wage occurred in 2009 when it went up from $6.55 to $7.25; before that, the minimum wage was stuck at $5.15 an hour for ten years.
As President Obama said in his speech, “We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages.

Today, a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line. That’s wrong, and that’s why since the last time this Congress raised the minimum wage, 19 states have chosen to bump theirs even higher.”
In Wisconsin, the minimum wage is still $7.25, but workers in Milwaukee from more than 2 dozen companies have joined together to form the Milwaukee Workers Organizing Committee . In addition to the fight for a higher wage, the group has also been fighting to form a union without retaliation, under a campaign called Raise Up MKE. In regards to this, there was a town hall meeting held on Thursday, November 21, 2013 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, located at 1531 W. Vliet Street. The subject of the meeting was “The High Public Cost of Low Wages,” sponsored by Wisconsin Jobs Now.
At the town hall meeting, many elected officials were on hand to speak, including State Representatives Mandela Barnes, Evan Goyke, Sandy, Pasch, Daniel Riemer, Christine Sinicki, Leon Young, JoCasta Zamarripa; plus State Senators Chris Larson and Tim Carpenter. The event was moderated by Executive Director of Wisconsin Jobs Now Jennifer Epps-Addison and Representative Mandela Barnes. Also included on the panel were three individuals that are directly affected by the disappearing American promise.
An economist and associate director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Laura Dresser was on the panel. “At the bottom of the labor market, we’ve left workers there struggling to make ends meet and realize this supposed promise of the American economy, that if you work, you will be able to take care of your family. Our economy at the bottom isn’t working that way. COWS recently (June 2013) did a report called, ‘Raise the Floor Milwaukee’ [] that focused on three sectors where more than half of the workers in those sectors earned poverty level wages: fast-food, home health and long term care, and retail. Half of the workforce doesn’t even make enough to get to the poverty line for a family of four. There’s the fact that there is work to do at that level, that’s about raising the floor. Raising the floor in every way possible, how do you raise the floor? You increase the minimum wage, you run living wage campaigns, you help people form unions, you help workers advocate for themselves and for each other.”

Workers in Milwaukee and others involved in the Milwaukee Workers Organizing Committee have been advocating for and with each other. Mary Coleman is a crew member at Popeye’s. Known as Miss Mary, she earns $7.25 an hour. “I am forced to live with my daughter and her 2 kids because I can’t afford my own place. They tell me, the only thing I am eligible for is FoodShare. I am here today to say, I will gladly trade in that QUEST card for $15 an hour.” In Wisconsin, FoodShare helps low-income individuals and families buy nutritious food. Eligibility for FoodShare is determined by income level and family size; and each month benefits are disbursed on a debit card called a QUEST card using an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system.
Brandon Henning has been working at Wendy’s for 6 years and he earns $7.70 an hour. “We work at these companies who make billions of dollars; at least they should pay us for the hard work that we do,” he said. Brandon also agreed with Miss Mary about trading in the QUEST card for higher wages.
A college student, Devonte Yeats, who also works at McDonalds and makes the minimum wage, spoke to the crowd at the town hall of about 70 people. “It’s ridiculous how they say, well if you don’t want to be on food stamps or public assistance, why don’t you just go look for a job. To me, no matter what job I go to, it’s probably, most likely going to be a low-wage job. I’m a college student and I work 40 hours a week and I work hard every day, there’s no way in the world that I can make a burger for somebody but can’t even go home and make a cheese sandwich for myself. No one should have to feel like they should depend on another person when they go to work and work hard, that’s just not right.”
Wisconsin Jobs Now Executive Director Jennifer Epps-Addison spoke about the high cost of these low wages that workers earn. “We are talking about priorities. It’s not about if we’re going to spend the money – we’re going to spend the money, it’s about whose money we’re spending and who we are giving it away to. The workers you heard from aren’t takers, they work hard every day; the takers are the CEOs of the companies who expect tax-payers to continue to subsidize corporations to the tune of $166 million in our state and billions of dollars in the country.”
With consumerism at a high, corporations rolling out advertisements and door-busting sales earlier than ever, and low-wage workers caught in the middle, many will be watching to see how this fight to raise the minimum wage ends. By the federal government not increasing the minimum wage or indexing it (which means that it is adjusted automatically each year to keep pace with the cost of living), the value of the wage erodes, thus taking away the promise to all Americans and what this county was founded on; nameless honest work that earns an honest wage.DSC_8824