It’s not enough. It’s nowhere near enough. Labor creates everything of value in the world. We who work should be able to dispose of our full product. Until we are in a position to eliminate capitalism entirely, the working class builds its strength by fighting the bosses for whatever we can get, whether it’s a strike against one employer leading to a collective bargaining agreement, or a demand for legislation to improve wages or conditions for all workers in a locality, state, or country.
If you agree with that already, you are a socialist, and should join us. But read on, because the capitalists have such efficient means of making their interests seem like “common sense” that most working people are not yet socialists. Some have even bought into the notion that a simple reform demand like $15/hour is “too much,” “too fast,” or “not right for here” in Maine. If you have people like that as friends, family, or co-workers—most of us do, so we bet you do, too—here are some facts and figures you can use to show why this is really the least we can demand.
Why $15 Instead of $12?
A coalition of labor unions and liberal lobbying groups put a citizen’s initiative on the ballot this November that will raise the minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020. We’ll vote for it, but it’s not enough. If you believe government inflation data, then the peak of the Federal minimum wage came in 1968, when it reached $1.60/hour, equivalent to $10.78 at today’s prices. If inflation is around 2.7% for the next four years, then $12 in 2020 would be equivalent of $1.60 in 1968. This is typical liberalism: taking pains to appear “reasonable,” very trusting in the government, and thinking working people should be grateful to have things as bad as their grandparents did.
There are several statistical tricks that the government uses to make the official measure of inflation, the Consumer Price Index, appear lower than the prices that take a bite out of workers’ paychecks. The first is the “weighting” of housing costs, which determines how heavily actual rents are counted, versus a fictional concept of “owner’s equivalent rent.” If young people are living stacked on top of each other in small apartments or moving back in with their parents, that supposedly counteracts the double-digit rent increases and the way that purchasing costs for houses have skyrocketed. A wage that could buy a house in 1968 might get you a room of your own on Craigslist today.
The other trick is called “hedonic indexing.” Improvements in the quality of consumer goods are factored in as reductions in prices, even when no such reduction has taken place in the real world. We can console ourselves that we have smartphones with which to browse through the listings of the apartments we cannot afford rather than having to make do with newspaper classified ads to shop for a house.
The demand for $15/hour wasn’t concocted by well-meaning professionals fiddling with government data. It was raised by workers, especially fast food workers, who have been struggling day to day and know what things really cost. But in case you are talking to someone who has fallen into the elitist habit of trusting people with advanced degrees more, there’s a website out of MIT called the Living Wage Calculator. According to their calculations, in a family with two adults and two children, with both adults working full-time and year-round, a living wage in the Portland metropolitan area would be $15.17/hour. If you believe the minimum wage should be a living wage, then $15/hour is not too much, but a little too little, a good start.
Socialize Medicine, Child Care, Elder Care
Why are we using figures for families with children? Not everyone has children. But the wages the capitalists pay us are payment for the commodity we provide them called our labor-power, our ability to work. They are paying us not just to come in today, but to be able to come in tomorrow, and for them to be able to replace us with a younger worker when we’re too worn out to keep coming in. If working-class people can’t raise our kids in decent conditions, who will keep working for the capitalists? Individual, short-sighted bosses—and that describes most of them—may say that’s “not my problem.” But it’s a problem for the working class as a whole.
The United States, unlike most affluent countries (and even some not-so-affluent ones), leaves paying for the care of children, elders, and the sick mostly to individual families. Looking at the Living Wage Calculator again, we see that the living wage for a single adult working full-time is $11.11/hour. But if that same person is a single parent, it more than doubles, to $23.23. Someone has to watch that kid while the parent is working full time, and that’s not cheap. Nor should it be, because if we can’t do it ourselves, people who are responsible for the care of another want it to be done by someone is well-trained and not struggling to survive themselves. If we shared these costs, with socialized medicine, child care facilities, and elder care resources, they would not be so burdensome for individual families, and there wouldn’t be such big differences in living wages between different types of families. We can and should fight for those resources from the capitalists, and we will be able to make them a reality in a socialist society. Until then, we continue the fight for living wages for all.
Training Wage, Tip Credit, Other Boss Shit
We can already hear the bosses’ whines:
Why should I pay so much for someone who’s just starting out? Can’t we have a lower training wage? No. Society already invested plenty of resources in educating people. You can’t expect someone fresh off the street to already know all the details of your business. That person still has bills to pay while they learn the ropes. Maybe if you treated workers better, you wouldn’t have such high turnover.
Then how about a lower wage for young people? They don’t have responsibilities. Bull. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, using the Federal government’s notoriously low-bar definition of poverty, 180,000 people in Maine are poor, 14% of the population. Half of those poor people are between the ages of 25 and 64, and 27% are children. Low wages are not just for teenagers working for spending money. And many working-class young people are working for more than just spending money: They are helping to support their families, or have kids of their own, or are trying to save up money for higher education and its spiraling costs.
The restaurant industry needs a tip credit to survive! The restaurant industry has taken advantage of Americans’ individual generosity to get away with paying practically nothing to its employees. The Federal minimum wage for tipped employees is still a mere $2.13/hour, the same as 20 years ago! In Maine, it’s only slightly better, at $3.75. Working for tips opens workers up to all sorts of abuses: demands that waitstaff “tip out” to managers and kitchen staff, putting up with harassment from customers in fear of not getting tips, or tolerating managerial harassment in order to not get stuck with a bad station. Restaurants in countries where tipping is not customary, like Germany, have found ways to survive and deliver respectful service while paying living wages to their waitstaff. During the Spanish Civil War, when workers in Barcelona took over the restaurants, they banned tipping and all the toadying behavior that went with it. If an industry requires its workers to bow and scrape to survive, maybe it deserves to die.