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Neal Peirce: A city’s obligation to press for fair and living wages

By Neal Peirce
Washington Post Writers Group.

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WASHINGTON: America’s cities, its towns and counties and communities, “gotta care.” Significant numbers of citizens are obliged to live with low wages and sometimes miserable working conditions that critics blame on, among others, Wal-Mart,, Macy’s, KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King.

Small wonder that low-income workers, with a special hand from the Service Employees International Union, have been staging short strikes and rallies across the country to dramatize the issue.

But there’s a key issue. Should city governments be supporting their effort? The issue has won enhanced political attention from Bill de Blasio’s surge in the New York City mayoralty race. He’s argued that “chains like McDonald’s and Burger King are part of a $200 billion industry,” and that the current $7.25-an-hour minimum wage is “unacceptable.” “I will not stand for it,” he insists.

Behind the politics, there’s a solid case for fairer income distribution in our cities and regions. Concentrations of low-wage workers mean that a community has reduced spending power. This translates into reduced ability for small businesses to thrive, fewer tax receipts, and an overall less vibrant economy.

But it’s worse than that. Just to survive, many low-wage workers are obliged to string together two or three different jobs. And that, notes Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California, easily dashes their hopes for job training and economic upgrading. One needs a decently paying regular job just to have the time for community college at night and bettering skills.

And then, Pastor notes, there’s the psychological impact on children — “a sense of helplessness that can envelop an up-and-coming generation if they don’t see their parents making progress.”

Low-wage penury also undermines civic life. Workers living “on the edge,” juggling multiple jobs, have less time for enjoying the parks and physical exercise everyone needs, for following their children’s progress in school, for engagement with their communities.

And then there are the big economic implications. “If you’re concerned about city economies, you have to be concerned about wage inequality,” notes Lee Fisher, president of the group CEOs for Cities. “For the economy to grow, consumers need to be spending. And spending won’t pick up without wage growth.”

CEOs for Cities’ research, Fisher reports, reveals an “Opportunity Dividend” premised on the notion that a decrease of poverty in America by 1 percent would save $31 billion in such government services as Medicaid and food stamps. Each person living in poverty, the analysis shows, equals about $19,000 more in anti-poverty expenditures in a metro area.

In Fisher’s view, the “single most important issue for every city’s economic health is its ability to move people out of poverty, into the middle class.”

And he underscores the companion issue of civic engagement: “If people feel respected and treated with dignity, including how they’re paid, they’re more likely to be invested in the future of their city civically.”

Small wonder then that de Blasio has generated major interest with his promise to increase taxes on $500,000-and-over earners with the proceeds funding early childhood and school programs.

There are examples of fair wage advance by negotiation. In Cleveland, Mayor Frank Jackson worked closely with major employers, especially university hospitals, to win agreement that all the permanent jobs in a big hospital construction expansion would include paying workers a living wage.

Often, though, determined labor organizing is the only route. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy successfully lobbied the city’s council in 2008 to require a living wage — about $12 an hour — for employees of hotels surrounding the Los Angeles International Airport. And it keeps pressing to extend the benefits to LAX’s baggage handlers, airline cabin cleaners and other service employees.

Last year the effort was successfully extended to Long Beach, where voters approved a measure requiring hotels with 100 rooms or over to pay its maids, bellmen, janitors and other employees a minimum wage of at least $13 an hour — far above California’s official $8 minimum. In a city that had invested heavily in subsidies to draw hotels in the first instance, the move marked a belated but significant balancing of interests.

Indeed, the push for fair and living wages is long overdue — and a welcome balance to the continued practice of state and local governments to expend vast sums (recently estimated at close to $80 billion a year) to lure or retain footloose corporations.

Some of those very subsidies go to national chain employers who claim that paying living wages will force them to close facilities, shrink the workforce and lose market share.

Perhaps it’s time, finally, to decide that America’s communities, and their people — including, indeed especially those struggling on the economic edge — should come first and not last.

Peirce is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist. He can be reached at

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