In an era of intense partisanship and frequent political gridlock, achieving social change sometimes requires finding a middle ground position that marks meaningful progress in advancing an important end.
But meeting in the middle is neither intrinsically good, nor always strategically appropriate: some circumstances and moments demand standing firm in defense of what is right. For the 80-plus religious, labor, civil rights, business and community organizations that have come together to ensure a $10.10 federal minimum wage, this is one of those times.
Legislation in Congress championed by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller would restore the minimum wage to its Nixon-era value, ensure it never again falls below the poverty line for a family of three, and strike a major blow for pay equity by lifting wages for the overwhelmingly female tipped workforce. The bill is already modest, a first step toward reversing decades of wage stagnation, stanching the corrosive spread of income inequality, and re-establishing an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few.
While modest, the proposed minimum wage increase will make a world of difference in the lives of millions of America’s workers who are struggling to provide for their families today and prepare for tomorrow on poverty wages that should be unacceptable in a decent society and a fair economy. These are men and women like Jeanette Lynn, a North Carolina fast food worker and mother of three trying to make ends meet on $7.25 an hour. Jeanette uses food stamps to get by, and often worries that she won’t be able to afford the basics for herself and her children.
“There are days when I’ve had to go hungry just to make sure that my kids got food on their plates,” she says. “It’s not right.”
Some in the Senate have called for compromise on the bedrock principles of the Harkin-Miller bill. But anything less than a $10.10 an hour wage floor — with future cost-of-living adjustments and a tipped minimum wage set at 70 percent of the full value — would be unconscionable.
After all, relegating minimum wage families like Jeanette’s to poverty is not compromise; it’s immoral.
Leaving tipped workers unsure if they can cobble together enough income to make ends meet is not compromise; it’s unjust.
Punting to future Congresses the question of whether low-wage workers will see their incomes keep pace with the rising cost of living — or fall to poverty-level — is not compromise; it’s negligent.
And casting aside an opportunity to create a $22 billion economic boost for all of us by putting money in the pockets of 28 million people who need it is not compromise; it’s economic malfeasance.
For too many years, Washington politicians have allowed the minimum wage to languish, enacting hikes too low to repair the damage done by governmental neglect and too infrequent to assure wage growth kept pace with any reasonable economic metric. Decades of forced compromises in this basic labor standard — the federal minimum wage — are part and parcel of why so many Americans continue to struggle and our economy continues to falter.
And that’s why the notion of yet another compromise must be firmly repudiated: America’s working families have compromised far too much already. Enough is enough.
Christine Owens is Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project, which leads a coalition of more than 80 groups dedicated to raising the federal minimum wage.