Monday, January 27, 2014

The Fight for $15 (Part II)

A server at DiMillo's Floating Restaurant in Portland's Old Port. Wait staff there make a base salary of $3.75 an hour--half the state's $7.50 minimum wage.

It's official: Portland Mayor Michael Brennan reads this blog.

How else to explain the mayor's call in his recent "State of the City" address to establish a higher minimum wage in Portland, just weeks after Guerrilla Press took on that very topic? Hey, Mike--while you are listening, I have some ideas on other issues I'd like you to consider.

OK, so I have no idea if Brennan reads this blog. In all likelihood he is following the lead of his Democratic leadership, which has made raising the federal minimum wage a top priority this (election) year, according to a recent story in the New York Times. While President Obama's proposed $10.10 an hour would still not constitute a living wage, and falls short of the $15 per hour many fast-food and retail strikers have called for in recent months, the fact that the topic has been thrust back into mainstream debate is nonetheless encouraging.

If city officials were to approve an increased minimum wage, it would make Portland the only community in Maine to have a higher wage than the statewide $7.50. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25.) Such a move is not unprecedented, however. Nationally, eight cities or municipalities in the U.S. currently have a minimum wage that is higher than their state level.

As governor, Angus King twice vetoed modest increases to the state's minimum wage, claiming it would scare off potential businesses.

Of course, with this renewed focus on the minimum wage comes the inevitable Big Business backlash. Though Brennan did not state a specific dollar amount in his generic address, local business owners are already getting nervous that this prospective wage increase might--gasp!--cost them more money.

Steve DiMillo, owner of the upscale DiMillo's Restaurant and prominent local businessman griped to the Portland Press Herald's Randy Billings (1/24/2014) that any increase in the minimum wage would force him to "give raises to some of [his] highest-paid employees."

DiMillo's wait staff, because they are tipped workers, only receive a base salary of $3.75--half the state minimum wage. But, DiMillo points out, "they earn upwards of $20 an hour when tips are included..."

That is assuming, of course, the waiter is tipped at all. Last time I checked, tipping is completely optional. Sure, most of us tip regularly and tip well, but DiMillo makes it out to be a guaranteed part of a waiter's income. Besides which, servers whose tip is included in a credit or debit card payment do not always receive the money right away--if they receive it at all. Wage theft in the restaurant industry is far more pervasive than many people realize.

Later, in the same article, Coffee By Design co-owner Mary Allen Lindemann, also bemoans the possibility of having to pay her workers more. She shifts the blame to the city's lack of affordable housing, which, while certainly an equally important concern for minimum-wage workers, strikes me as something of an apples-vs.-oranges comparison. In other words, it is not Lindemann's fault that her employees can barely afford to stay in their apartments. It is the city's.

And how do CBD workers feel about their meager salary...? We do not know. Billings does not quote any of them--though he does offer a picture of CBD barista, Elliot Conrad, hard at work for little pay, to accompany his story.

This is actually a recurring trend in media stories concerning the minimum wage. Employers and business owners (aka, the "job-creators") are quoted at length, but rarely do reporters bother to interview the workers themselves--the very people who stand to benefit from a higher wage. And here I thought the whole point of journalistic "objectivity" was to present, "both sides."

Incidentally, can I just note how disappointing it is to hear this corporate, anti-worker attitude from two of Portland's popular small businesses? I always thought part of the appeal of small businesses over the Big Box stores was that they are run by halfway decent human beings who actually appreciate and acknowledge their workers' contributions. Guess it just goes to show that, while capitalism may come in many sizes, the end result is always the same: Enrich the owners while exploiting the labor potential of the workers.

The argument that a higher minimum wage would cost jobs is simply not true.

This conservative talking-point has been thoroughly discredited by a wide range of economists and academic studies, all of which find that a hike in the minimum wage has little to no discernible effect on employment. In fact, a Chicago Federal Reserve study in 2011 found that every one dollar increase in the hourly pay of minimum wage workers results, on average, in $2,800 in new spending from those workers' households. This means more in the economy overall which, in turn, leads to more jobs. Or, as NYT economist, Paul Krugman, puts it, "Your spending is my income and my spending is your income."

Now, I know what you are thinking:

"DiMillo's and Coffee By Design are small businesses. They do not earn the mega-millions that Fortune 500 corporations like Walmart and McDonald's do. They simply cannot afford to pay their workers more."

But even if we accept this as true (and I for one don't; DiMillo's and CBD are both highly successful businesses, the latter with multiple locations throughout Portland), the fact is these companies employ a very small portion of the city's overall workforce. In 21st century, post-globalization, post-NAFTA America, the majority of us work--whether we like it or not--for Corporate America. Here in Maine, that means we work at Hannaford, Walmart, and L.L. Bean--the state's three largest employers.

Frankly, it makes no sense to involve small business owners in the minimum wage debate given that the percentage of the workforce they employ is so statistically small. That being said, DiMillo and Lindemann are actually in the minority of the small business community on this issue. According to a recent report by Small Business Majority, 67 percent of small business owners wholeheartedly support not only raising the minimum wage, but also annually adjusting it for inflation. Yet, the Press Herald story makes no mention of this survey.

The fact is, these two penny-pinchers are not representative of the overall small business community.

Finally, can we please retire this elitist notion that low-skilled, minimum wage jobs are basically "starter jobs," that were designed merely to give teenagers work experience?

This may have been true 30 years ago, when we had a robust, thriving economy with plenty of work opportunity. But today the majority of jobs with any expected growth are almost exclusively in retail or the service sector. These crappy, demeaning jobs are the only ones available even to college educated workers. To claim that individuals today "choose" to work at McDonald's or Wendy's demonstrates an astounding lack of understanding about the current state of the U.S. economy.

Additionally, the stereotype of the average McDonald's worker as a teenager or college student is equally outdated. The average age of a fast-food worker, according to a recent report by the National Employment Law Project, is 29. More than 26 percent of them, according to the report, have children and subsist on poverty wages. To claim that minimum-wage jobs are not "real jobs," or are only meant to be "transitional," smacks of classist arrogance.

No matter how you look at it, there is simply no compelling argument against raising the minimum wage--in Portland and nationwide.

Now, whether Brennan can actually get any sort of minimum wage ordinance through the current business-worshipping City Council (which is primarily made up of Democrats; just sayin'...), is another question entirely.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

When America Rejected War

Perhaps the most significant news story from 2013 was never reported on in the corporate press. It went virtually unnoticed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Brian Williams, Bill O' Reilly, Scott Pelley, Charlie Rose, and Rachel Maddow made no mention of it.

It is the story of how the American people did something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago: We stopped a war. Literally.

Last September the Obama administration had Syria firmly locked in its crosshairs and was seconds away from pulling the trigger. But the American people raised their collective voices in protest and said, "No!" Diplomacy and sanctions prevailed instead of bombs and violence. And yes, we can certainly debate the merits of that diplomacy in regard to halting Syria's now three-year civil war. But for one brief moment in American history, We the People allowed peace, reason and sanity to trump war.

Rapper-poet Gil Scott-Heron was right: The revolution was not televised.

For those whose cultural amnesia prevents them from remembering anything beyond the last news-cycle, here is a bit of a refresher on Washington's latest warmonger-song-and-dance-routine.

The Middle-Eastern country in question this time around was Syria. The rationale hinged on allegations of a chemical weapons attack on rebel forces, likely ordered by President Bashar al-Assad. Since President Obama is a Democrat, the justifications for this war had less to do with striking preemptively than with intervening humanitarily--not unlike Bill Clinton's rationale for bombing Kosovo in 1999.

As was the case in the Iraq War, the chemical weapons claims were dubious from the beginning.

According to a Sept. 2013 story in McClatchy by Hannah Allam and Mark Siebel (09/02/2013), the administration's case for war was "riddled with inconsistencies," and hinged "mainly on circumstantial evidence." More recently veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh published an article in the London Review of Books, claiming the Obama administration "cherry-picked intelligence" to "justify a strike against Assad." In his report, Hersh maintains it was Syrian rebels operating in the al-Nusra Front that conducted the chemical weapons attack--not Assad. (Al-Nusra is a branch of al-Qaeda in Syria.)

Regardless of who specifically attacked whom with what and when, it was clear our elected elites were again using a batch of dubious talking-points to justify another war. The American public had seen this movie before, and had no desire for a sequel.

As such, an August CBS/New York Times poll found 61 percent of Americans (or six out of every ten) opposed military action in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from later that month cast the lack of public support for an invasion even more derisively with a Washington Post headline that read, "New Poll: Syria intervention even less popular than Congress" (08/26/13). That survey found a whopping nine percent of respondents favored war. And it was not just progressives who were speaking out. Anti-war libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) opposed the Syria strike more on practical (costs too much; not our fight, etc.) than moral grounds.

Indeed, congressional representatives on the left and the right were doing something heretofore unfathomable: They were listening to their constituents and acting on their demands. I know--crazy, right?

As Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman wrote of Secretary of State John Kerry's Colin Powell-esq U.N. testimony, in her weekly column ("Americans Say No to Another Middle East War," 09/19/13):

"After 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands dead, tens of thousands maimed and trillions of dollars spent, the U.S. public won't take the rehearsed oratory of an appointed official as sufficient grounds for war."

Likewise, the Green Party of the United States voiced opposition to the planned Syrian war early on. In an Aug. 29, 2013 press release, the Greens called any attack on Syria a "serious abuse of presidential powers." The Greens also called on Congress to repeal the Authorization to Use Military Force Act (AUMF), passed shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. The AUMF essentially gives the president carte blanche to unilaterally strike any country it perceives as even a remote threat under the guise of the "War on Terror."

Anyone who thought the mainstream press might have learned a thing or two about sending the nation to war based on lies, sadly would have thought wrong. Quite the reverse, the warmongering, "liberal" press ate-up the White House's chemical weapons story as if Iraq never happened. In fact, when Obama's war plans were suddenly derailed many political pundits seemed downright disappointed.

Washington Post uber-conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, decried the Russian peace deal as an instance of "epic incompetence," claiming it serves only so President Obama can "save face" ("The Fruits of Epic Incompetence," 09/12/13).

He laments:

Assad, far from receiving punishment of any kind, goes from monster to peace partner. Putin bestrides the world stage, playing dealmaker. He's welcomed by America as a constructive partner. Now a world statesman, he takes to the New York Times to blame American interventionist arrogance--a.k.a "American exceptionalism"--for inducing small states to buy WMDs in the first place.

Hold up! Vladimir Putin not only brokers a peace deal, but he gets to write an editorial in the communist, America-hating New York Times, as well...??? Say it ain't so, Charlie!

Other media hawks used the lack of a military strike as further evidence of Obama's "weakness" on matters of foreign policy and "defense." These claims are, of course, laughably absurd when one considers that both the military-spending budget and global U.S. troop presence have increased under Obama. Funny how conservatives drop their "support the troops" mantra once a Democrat--who turns out to be more militant than his Republican predecessor--takes office.

So, does this mean we have finally ended the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy? Hardly.

But it does mean, more than a decade after the greatest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history, the American people are slowly waking up to the moral, legal, and economic fallacies of war. Indeed, ten years ago when the country was gearing up to invade Iraq, the atmosphere surrounding antiwar protests was markedly different.

Simplistic as the sentiment may sound to some, Marvin Gaye was right: War is never the answer. It is barbaric, destructive and represents the most baser, savage of human behaviors. In the nearly 100,000 years of human history, it is inconceivable we have not yet rid ourselves of the lust for war.

"Oh war! Thy son of hell," Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, Part II, "Whom angry heavens do make their minister."

"Throw in the frozen bosoms of our part
Hot coals of vengeance! Let no soldier fly.
He that is truly dedicate to war
Hath no self-love, nor he that loves himself,
Hath not essentially but by circumstance
The name of valour."

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Fight for a Higher Wage

Will 2014 be the year minimum wage workers finally get a much-needed raise?

While it is generally unwise to put much stock in blanket campaign promises at the start of an election year, the Democratic Party insists raising the minimum wage will be its top focus going into the 2014 midterm election.

The New York Times reported last week Democrats hope to enact legislation first proposed by President Obama in last year's State of the Union address which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015. (The national minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour. Here in Maine, it is a quarter higher at $7.50)

Meanwhile, activists and fast-food workers in a number of cities are pushing for a $15 an hour minimum wage, spurred on by a series of nationwide strikes by workers at Wendy's, McDonald's, and Walmart.

It is worth noting, we are once again seeing the Democrats not leading but following on this issue. This confirms my long-standing belief that true systemic change always comes from the bottom-up--not the top-down. Indeed, as longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader points out in a piece for the Wall Street Journal ("America's miserly minimum wage needs an upgrade," 04/15/2013), had the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be around $10.67 today.

And despite Democrats' hope of staking out the minimum wage as a new "wedge issue" as the Times article puts it, the issue already shares widespread support across party lines. A recent CBS News poll finds 33 percent of Americans support increasing the minimum wage to $9, while 36 percent prefer the $10.10 rate. (Curiously, the $15 proposal is not included in the poll.) Only 25 percent of Americans wish to see the minimum wage remain at its current rate.

So, if there is so much widespread support for a higher minimum wage, what's the hold up? Well, the right-wing's argument against any raise in the minimum wage is the same one it cites for most everything else: It would be a "job killer."

"Why would we want to make it harder for employers to hire people?" House Speaker John Boehner asks in the Times article. Boehner and his fellow Republicans contend a higher minimum wage "increases the cost of labor," ultimately leading to lay-offs or a diminished work force. Forbes contributor, Tim Worstall, essentially makes the same argument in a piece from last September ("The Absurdity of a $15 Minimum Wage," 09/01/13).

Yet, as Nader points out in his Op-Ed, economists have thoroughly debunked this empty talking-point. In fact, a 2011 study by the Chicago Federal Reserve concluded that every one dollar increase in the hourly pay of minimum wage workers results, on average, in $2,800 in new spending from those workers' households. More consumer spending means more money in the economy overall.

Ergo, a higher minimum wage is not a "job killer" as the deficit-obsessed right claims. It is a job creator.

Furthermore, these are multinational Fortune 500 corporations we are talking about--not mom & pop small businesses. If a fast-food franchise like McDonald's--which raked in upwards of $1.5 billion last year--cannot afford to pay its workers a livable wage then capitalism is an even bigger failure than we previously thought. For all of Washington's whining about the beleaguered "small business" owners, the fact is they employ a small fraction of the nation's workers. In the wake of globalization, deregulation, and Wall Street's ravaging of the economy, most of us--two thirds of the American workforce to be precise--work for Corporate America.

Let's just say it: These corporations are too cheap to pay their workers what their labor is worth. Rather than paying its staff a decent wage, retail giants like Walmart disingenuously encourage them to sign up for food stamps. In November, a Walmart store in Ohio held a spurious Thanksgiving food-drive for its own employees. Talk about adding insult to injury.

This brings me to another point--one that highlights conservatives' hypocrisy on this matter. Austerity-pushing Republicans and market-worshipping libertarians would like nothing better than to eliminate any and all forms of government "entitlements," including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid entirely. Yet, if minimum wage workers were paid a living wage they would not have as great a need for these supplemental programs. Collectively, taxpayers shell out close to $7 billion every year to make up for the fast-food industry's low wages, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkley.

In other words, we are basically paying McDonald's workers for them. This is not free-market capitalism by any standard. It is corporate welfare.

Just like the miserly employers who complain about associate health care costs yet also oppose single-payer health care, there is a contradictory disconnect between budget-slashing conservatives who should, theoretically, support a higher minimum wage in their pursuit of reducing the "size of government." Either that, or this is simply their insidious plan to literally starve the working poor to death--a theory which, frankly, I would not entirely rule out.

Clearly, the case for a higher minimum wage is a no-brainer. Let's make 2014 the year we stop talking about it, and actually do it.

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