Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Urban Power vs. State Power: A Living Wage

We observe the daily dramas that emerge from our capital and are dismayed because nothing seems to ever get accomplished. A recent article by R. Shep Melnick in The Wilson Quarterly titled The Gridlock Illusion suggests that while we should be concerned by the politics in Washington, we may be missing a lot of progress being made at other levels of government.

"The stalemate/gridlock argument is misleading not only because it ignores so many accomplishments, but also because it focuses so intently on just one small part of domestic policy, namely passage of major pieces of legislation at the national level. Lost in this picture are the daily decisions of administrators, judges, and state and local officials, as well as members of Congress engaged in the quotidian business of passing appropriations, reauthorizations, and budget reconciliation bills. Taken individually, these decisions might seem like small potatoes, but collectively they can produce significant policy change."

Melnick provides a few examples of what he means.

"How did affirmative action—highly unpopular with the American public—become embedded in so many federal programs? Slowly, subtly, and at times surreptitiously, a long series of court decisions, agency rules, and complex legislative provisions injected the presumption of proportional representation into federal civil rights programs. How did the federal government come to set national standards for state mental institutions, schools for the developmentally disabled, nursing homes, and prisons? Largely through litigation and consent decrees negotiated by the Department of Justice."

"To take another example, how did Congress manage to pass controversial legislation guaranteeing every disabled student a ‘free appropriate public education,’ complete with an ‘individualized education plan,’ provision of ‘related services,’ and a promise that each student would be placed in the ‘least restrictive environment’? The answer is that the courts acted first, suggesting (rather obliquely) that students with disabilities might have a constitutional right to an adequate education. This forced state governments to spend much more on special education, which led them to demand that the federal government provide the money needed to comply with this federal mandate, which led Congress to provide both more money and more federal regulation, which led to more litigation and more federal requirements, which led to state demands for even more money, and so on. This is a vivid illustration of how separation of powers and federalism can produce not gridlock, but a game of institutional leapfrog that results in a steady expansion of government programs."

The lesson Melnick seems to be imparting is that if you wish to accomplish something, you need not start at the top. What happens at the top often only occurs when actions taken at lower levels of government force the higher levels to respond.

The Republicans have certainly understood this concept as they have focused on using control of state legislatures to implement laws and regulations that never could have passed at the national level. Unfortunately, they have used this opportunity to restrict voting rights, attack unions, and erode workers rights in general.

Gordon Lafer provides a summary of these actions in an article provided by the Economic Policy Institute: The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012.

"Over the past two years, state legislators across the country have launched an unprecedented series of initiatives aimed at lowering labor standards, weakening unions, and eroding workplace protections for both union and non-union workers. This policy agenda undercuts the ability of low- and middle-wage workers, both union and non-union, to earn a decent wage."

In addition to the well-publicized assaults on public-sector unions and the right-to-work laws passed, a number of other actions have been taken that limit wage and labor standards.

"Four states passed laws restricting the minimum wage, four lifted restrictions on child labor, and 16 imposed new limits on benefits for the unemployed."

"States also passed laws stripping workers of overtime rights, repealing or restricting rights to sick leave, undermining workplace safety protections, and making it harder to sue one’s employer for race or sex discrimination."

"Legislation has been pursued making it harder for employees to recover unpaid wages (i.e., wage theft) and banning local cities and counties from establishing minimum wages or rights to sick leave."

"For the 93 percent of private-sector employees who have no union contract, laws on matters such as wages and sick time define employment standards and rights on the job. Thus, this agenda to undermine wages and working conditions is aimed primarily at non-union, private-sector employees."

Is there a progressive counter to this Republican aggression? Clearly, state legislatures controlled by Democrats can be more active in pursuing a progressive agenda. However, an article in Bloomberg Businessweek by Mark Niquette suggests another possible approach. Niquette points out that the dozen largest cities have all elected Democrats as mayors. Even in deep-red Texas, Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio are all led by Democrats.

Over the years urban areas have become more strongly Democratic, while rural areas have moved in the opposite direction. Are cities and their surrounding areas taking advantage of the political cohesion they possess—and their large number of voters— to further some agenda that could be then parlayed into a state or national movement? There is little evidence of coherent initiatives. Local programs exist, but there seems to be a lack of a master plan.

What might such an agenda include? One obvious component would be a living wage requirement. A living wage is a minimum wage pegged to a level of income required to meet some income standard at the regional cost of living. A universal application of a living wage may be the only feasible means of combating the ever-increasing income inequality that is associated with free-market capitalism.

Much has been said about the demonstrations by fast-food workers demanding a $15 wage in order to make enough to live on. One usually concludes that the minimum wage should be raised to that level. The current national minimum wage is too low and should be raised, but it does not make sense to raise it to a single level when the cost of living varies so much across the country. It might require $15 to survive in New York City, but does that mean it is appropriate for a fast-food worker at a truck stop in Wyoming? The living wage approach is more flexible and fairer.

Harold Meyerson has written a long and reflective article for The American Prospect: If Labor Dies, What’s Next? The labor movement and the union movement have long been identical, but that need not be the case. Meyerson suggests that a viable alternative to unionization might be nothing more than aggressive local politics. In the same way that Republicans have campaigned to bend state legislatures to their will, progressives could play the same game at the local level.

As an example he describes the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). This organization created programmatic platforms, recruited candidates, and waged successful campaigns for local political offices. The goal was to use the leverage provided by government assistance to businesses to force those businesses to be more supportive of workers and of the community in general.

"LAANE’s first major victory was persuading the city council to require cleaning companies with which it had contracts to pay their workers a living wage—a sum several dollars higher than California’s minimum wage....Over the years, the scope of such ordinances was broadened to encompass card-check unionization at hotels and sports arenas that received redevelopment funds; local hiring requirements for developers of major projects; and clean air standards for trucks at the Port of Los Angeles. Some of these ordinances have served as models for living-wage and other laws in more than 140 other cities."

The little town of SeaTac in Washington State recently passed a $15 minimum wage that applies to certain classes of workers. 

A little local activism can make a big difference. It would be encouraging if this initiative was part of a coherent national plan; but most likely it isn’t.

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