The Superbowl and the Minimum Wage

Also published on Alternet at

The City of New Orleans raised its minimum wage by public referendum the day before the Superbowl. The City Council, the state legislature, and New Orleans’s monopoly newspaper (or, rather, infotainmentpaper) all fought against the increase. Front groups for hotel and restaurant owners vowed to continue the fight in court after the vote. Any public respect for democracy or even analysis of why the people had voted for a higher minimum wage was absent from the mainstream media.

So, when I watched the long advertisement for Fox, with the breaks for football plays, that they called the Superbowl, I had to wonder what, if anything, Paul McCartney meant by wailing about “freedom, freedom, freedom,” what the point was in Bono’s American flag jacket, what all the patriotism was about, and what all the military imagery was justified by. What were we free to do in the United States or in New Orleans? What were the people working for $5.15 an hour in the Superdome and the hotels and restaurants serving the football fans free to do?

The federal minimum wage has been dropping in real value for decades. It would have to be about $8 now to be worth what it was 30 years ago. A bill that would have raised it to $6.65 vanished from Congress’s radar screen on Sept. 11. Since Sept. 11, we have more people in low-wage jobs and more need for consumer spending, but there seems to be a ban on doing anything worthwhile in Washington, regardless of whether it’s needed now more than ever.

As a result, the living-wage movement has picked up speed. States have been raising their minimum wages, and cities and counties have been passing living-wage laws at a faster pace than ever before. Most living-wage laws (there are 80 of them now) apply to public employees and employees of companies with government contracts or receiving corporate welfare. Santa Monica and Berkeley passed living-wage laws that apply to private companies in certain sections of the cities that have benefited from public investment.

New Orleans’ new law goes a step further by raising the minimum wage to $1 above the federal for all private employers in the entire city. This is the same law that Washington, D.C., has long had. No other cities have minimum wage laws.

New Orleans is a city that runs on the tourism industry, and its tourism industry runs on the labor of African Americans paid poverty wages for their work. Of those living in poverty in New Orleans, 86 percent are African-American.

The fight to change things began in 1996 when the community group ACORN, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 100, and their allies in the New Orleans Living Wage Campaign collected 50,000 valid signatures in order to force a referendum to raise the minimum wage. The City Council refused to act. The Campaign collected the required number of signatures again. Still no action.

Then, in 1997, the state passed a law prohibiting localities from enacting wage standards. It was clear what the City had been stalling for. But the Louisiana Constitution grants enormous powers of self-governing and regulating to home-rule cities like New Orleans. The campaign challenged the state law in court and, after a lengthy series of decisions and appeals, won the right to hold the referendum. The ruling left open the question of the state law’s constitutionality until after a referendum passed. So, now it’s back to the courts.

The Times-Picayune ran a couple of fair and fairly well-written articles about the referendum nearly a month before it took place. On the day of the vote, it printed a grotesquely slanted story that did not even pretend to consider the position of those supporting the wage increase. It quoted the opponents explaining that they had chosen not to invest much in turning out ‘no’ votes, because they might have just wasted millions of dollars; instead they would fight in court for less money.

These opponents are people with tens of millions of dollars to spend and economists on call who habitually claim that the truth of their position is remarkably simple and obvious. Why did they believe they could not convince the public to vote with them? What are the readers of the Times-Picayune supposed to assume prevents such communication and education? Could it be that the great unwashed are hopelessly beyond the reach of argument and must be controlled for their own good?

Some readers may fall for that, but it is getting to be difficult to keep secret the fact that a growing majority of mainstream economists reject the anti-wage-standard arguments predicting job loss and (in a recent twist) the replacement of low-skill workers with those of higher skills (picture college educated would-be janitors waiting for the wages to hit $6.15). The Times-Picayune’s articles in January cited these arguments about job loss and “displacement” and then quoted a number of New Orleans business owners who sang a very different tune. They weren’t planning to move or fire their staffs. They even volunteered that they saw a benefit to the local economy of giving people more money to spend. They sounded, in short, like residents of the dozens of cities that have had living-wage laws for years now without any of the dire predictions coming true.

When I knocked on doors and phoned homes in recent weeks, and when I talked to people outside a polling place, I saw overwhelming support for the wage increase. Some people could not vote because of felony records, because they couldn’t understand the ballot, or because they had to work on the day before the Superbowl due to every single hotel room being full. But those who could vote either shouted their support or mumbled about their privacy. On the streets the point of view dominating the discussions is, not coincidentally, just about the opposite of the point of view dominating Fox.

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