Documentaries with a point of view

Perspectives on a Living Wage

Beyond a Living Wage


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The following program was recorded at the studio of Democracy Now! on August 11, 2006.

Amy Goodman: I’m Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, and this is part of a special Web series for the POV documentary Waging a Living about the living wage campaigns and beyond. Our guests today are Madeline Janis-Aparicio, who is executive director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and Professor Robert Pollin, the author of a number of books including The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy and Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity. Let’s begin with Madeline Janis-Aparicio on how you and the people in Los Angeles waged a living wage campaign in Los Angeles.

Madeline Janis-AparicioMadeline Janis-Aparicio: Many of us, especially in major metropolitan regions, but also all over the country, have been noticing this phenomenon of huge burgeoning numbers of people who are working poor, and who are working really hard and cannot sustain families. Some are even homeless, others are living in overcrowded conditions and their children don’t eat some days. We’ve been noticing that phenomenon for a long time. In LA it is particularly noticeable. We are the capitol of the working poor, in terms of numbers. So for many years, many of us were frustrated with the inability to raise the minimum wage to a level where it really reflected what it takes to live.

So we started looking at other ideas, and we got this idea from a living wage ordinance in Baltimore in ’96, ’95. The thought was: let’s look at all the ways that the private sector intersects with government, let’s re-own the tools of our democracy, and let’s insure that at least the people that work for companies that receive some benefit from some cities get a living wage, or at least a significantly higher wage than the minimum wage. We started working on the initial campaign in 1996. It passed in the city of LA in 1997, and has broadened over the years. Other ordinances have been passed in many cities, and the original LA ordinance ended up covering about 10,000 families. Now we are working on multiple campaigns to extend the living wage to industries that are really sticky and tied to the region, and who really need to be showing a greater contribution to lifting people up out of poverty.

Amy Goodman: What are some of those industries?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: Right now we have a proposal that’s going before the city council in September to extend the living wage to a zone around the airport. This zone is called the Century Corridor, and basically, it’s the area when you come out of LAX that has a massive number of big hotels with about 5,000 rooms; 35,000 workers work in the area and live predominantly in the surrounding areas, which are the poorest in the region. So the workers in those hotels, together with the communities surrounding that corridor, have joined together to form the Alliance for a New Century — Century Boulevard — and have been asking the city council to extend the city’s living wage ordinance to that zone. The city council has taken some initial votes to do that.

Amy Goodman: Who are the strongest forces arrayed against the living wage campaign? Who were they in Los Angeles?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: The strongest forces are really organized and they are some elements of organized business. They are primarily some of the larger companies working through some chambers of commerce, in our case the Central City Association, who see this movement as an attack on the kind of laissez faire deregulated economic environment that we’ve seen in the last 30 years, where government has reneged on its essential role to advocate for the public good in favor of letting the market decide. The living wage campaigns are really one of a number of tools that advocates have been using to reinvigorate government and make government again a tool for the public good. So I think that many of these business associations see this as an attack on the fundamental ideology of completely free market without any controls.

Amy Goodman: Once you pass the living wage ordinance, do some of the businesses that have opposed it actually begin supporting the campaign?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: We actually did a long range study with professors from UCLA and UC Riverside and we interviewed about 83 businesses — randomly sampled — that had been covered by the living wage. What we found is that there were a lot of positive benefits to having raised wages and provided healthcare: substantial decrease in turnover, rise in productivity, lower training costs, a greater sense of stability and easier competition as wages were taken out of competition for city contracts. Not everyone felt that way, but a lot of businesses felt that way. I wouldn’t call them advocates for a living wage. But they recognized that the living wage is not so bad, it didn’t hurt the bottom line and it actually can be helpful.

Amy Goodman: Why did you focus on the airport in your campaign for a living wage? What is special about LAX?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: The initial campaign for the ordinance that passed in ’97 focused on things that government owns, infrastructure such as airports. Los Angeles city owns four airports, as well as the harbor, libraries and convention centers. The airport was the largest concentration of low-wage workers that were covered by the living wage, so a lot of the initial organizing came from workers at the airport. And then we focused on the area around the airport because it is a center for the hospitality industry, so while it is not actually directly connected to local government, the idea is that this is a major industry that is benefiting from public investment.

Amy Goodman: We’re talking to Madeline Janis-Aparicio who is the Executive Director of LAANE, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Also joining us from western Massachusetts is Professor Robert Pollin, who has written a number of books focusing on financial macroeconomics, political economy and the living wage. Can you look at this on the national scale, Robert Pollin? How is the living wage campaign going around the country?

Robert PollinRobert Pollin: There has been a remarkable blossoming of this movement. I myself was recruited into this movement by none other than your other speaker this afternoon, Madeline. It was probably the most interesting thing that’s happened to me in the last decade. I was certainly broadly sympathetic to all of the things that Madeline has spoken up about in the mid-’90s, but like virtually everyone else, including most progressive people, I really didn’t have a clue as to what might constitute an effective strategy for fighting for workers’ well being. We’d heard so much about wage stagnation, wage decline, precipitous fall in the minimum wage, and the declining strength of unions. But there really wasn’t a strategy out there. So the living wage campaign really came out of nowhere when Madeline contacted me. I said: I think I’ve heard about this, but I’ve not been involved in any way. I didn’t know anybody that had been involved. So that was 1996, almost exactly ten years ago, because it was August that I first met Madeline.

Now, in ten years this has become part of the culture, and it has become a predominant force in U.S. politics starting at the local level, which is really the most effective way to build a grassroots movement; that’s where people have a chance to win. It has now advanced. I am just putting the finishing touches on yet another such study of the effects of the living wage for the state of Arizona. I’ve done these studies for other states, and if Arizona passes a higher wage, 19 states will have statewide minimum wages that are above the federal minimum wage.

Amy Goodman: You mentioned Arizona. Does Arizona, having gone through the whole struggle around clean campaigns, does that tie into living wage?

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Started in 1974, Dollars & Sense magazine publishes economic news and analysis, reports on economic justice activism, primers on economic topics and critiques of the mainstream media’s coverage of the economy.

Robert Pollin: What the living wage movement has succeeded in doing — and I really give people like Madeline a huge amount of credit, because very early on Madeline told me that this was going to happen and I had no idea that she was right — but what she said about the movement was that the main thing is we want to organize this thing at the local level and we want to get victories. When we get victories, then we’ll be able to build a stronger coalition that will broaden out the set of questions and also advance to a higher wage level.

That has happened in my own state here in Massachusetts. The initial living wage campaign in Boston was a very narrow measure, as many of these were. The level of coverage was such that realistically, 1,000 people would get raises. But the point was that beyond that, the living wage campaign led to a lot of other things. It led to the formation of a coalition around raising the statewide minimum wage, which is now going to go up to $8 an hour in January. It sparked a lot of the student campaigns around minimum wage increases, including the ones at Harvard, where there were sit-ins and so forth.

So the same thing is true in Arizona. The living wage campaigns have penetrated to places like Arizona, or for that matter, New Mexico. These are not places where you normally think that there’s a progressive movement that is going to push ahead. So this has really penetrated into the culture in a significant way. So much so — and I don’t know what the outcome of this will be yet — that two months ago I met with Howard Dean, who is formally the head of the Democratic Party, and he talked to me about wanting to make the living wage one of the Democrats’ planks in the new contract with America equivalent, like what Gingrich had in 1994 with the Republicans. Dean was very clear that this had to be, however the Democrats end up using it, something they had to latch onto. Certainly Democratic Party politicians by no means created this movement, it was people like Madeline that created the movement. But people like Madeline have succeeded in creating an ethos around this that is really irresistible.

Amy Goodman: Robert Pollin, let’s talk about the issue of Chicago City Council approving a groundbreaking measure that requires large retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, retailers that make over a billion dollars in sales, pay workers at least $10 an hour plus $3 in benefits by the year 2010. Of course the companies were very much opposed; they threatened to pull out of urban areas or not build stores in urban areas. How does race as well as economics fit together?

Robert Pollin: Well, I don’t really know the answer to that question. But I can speak to the strictly economic aspect. I think Wal-Mart wants to pay workers low wages. They use race, I don’t know the details of this, but they use race to divide workers, and that helps them pay low wages. Beyond that, well, let’s see what Madeline wants to say.

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: I think there are many sides to the economic injustice coin. Part of it is the low-wage economy and people not being able to sustain themselves. Part of it is disinvestment in urban areas, especially areas where there are large concentrations of people of color. And now we have major retailers like Wal-Mart who are really built upon the foundation of low wages and lack of healthcare, really trying to divide and conquer, especially in the African-American community, but also in the Latino community, by saying that they are the heroes coming into the inner city, even though they’re going to pay $7 an hour.

In many places like Los Angeles, and especially in the city of Inglewood, which is a predominantly African-American community, Wal-Mart has tried that divide and conquer trick, but people have seen through it. There is a strong unity in the African-American community here, although it is not total unity, in believing that people have a right to expect decent investment and decent jobs, and investment in the inner city. People in inner cities, especially people of color, have been pushed down so much that the expectations have been pushed down. So we need to work together to raise up those expectations to say that we want Wal-Mart, but we want a Wal-Mart that pays a living wage and treats people with dignity. That it is a part of surrounding communities. So there is an ongoing battle between major global retail and people working in urban areas. It is a battle that is playing out daily across the country and in very interesting ways.

Amy Goodman: How do immigrants fit into this picture?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: Well, it’s the same as in Wal-Mart. For years and years employers employed immigrants at extremely low wages, and had a history of laying off longer-term, predominantly African-American workers and then hiring immigrants, through no fault of the immigrants who were just trying to make a living. Now you have more immigrants joining unions, really fighting for their rights and standing up and saying, “We deserve a union, we deserve a living wage, and we think that you have discriminated against African-Americans and you need to — the hotel industry for example — need to bring in African-Americans in a systematic way.” So I think one of the things we need to be doing in the progressive movement is thinking about strategies of how we unify, recognizing that it is companies with large amounts of money and it is very successful global industries that are paying the low wages and that are dividing communities of color.

Amy Goodman: We’re talking to Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and Professor Bob Pollin, who teaches at University of Massachusetts and is co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute. We’re talking about living wage and beyond.

There are campaigns for a living wage all over the country at the same time that Congress has failed to pass an increase in the minimum wage. Professor Pollin, can you talk about how the minimum wage ties into the living wage?

Robert Pollin: If I could also just briefly comment on the measure in Chicago. The one thing I have done a lot of work on around this that is relevant here, is to estimate how much it is going to cost a firm like this to raise their wages up to this new standard. I have not estimated the effects of the Chicago measure itself on someplace like Wal-Mart, but I have recently done something fairly close: in Santa Fe I estimated the impact on all businesses, and specifically retail businesses among them, of raising their city-wide minimum wage from the federal standard of $5.15 to $8.50. Now the wage has now gone up to $9.50 in Santa Fe.

$8.50 is roughly equivalent to what will happen in Chicago, and the impact of that increase on retail businesses in Santa Fe, if you measure the cost increase and the wage increases, the total cost increase relative to the sales of the retail stores was less than 1 percent. That means that if Wal-Marts in Chicago were to raise the price of a hammer from $10 to $10.10, and they kept selling the same number of hammers, that would fully cover their cost increase from the raised wages. So the retailers are not going to leave urban areas. That was the same talk we heard when Madeline got me involved in L.A. The retail businesses are not going to leave; they’re not going to give up Chicago as a territory because they’re not going to want Costco to come in, and Costco pays decent wages. So that is a lot of bluster; they will make the adjustment and workers will be better off, and customers will barely notice the difference.

So the underlying strength of the living wage and the minimum wage increases is that the costs are widely diffused among consumers and businesses, and the benefits are concentrated where they should be, among low-wage workers and their families. Now, the minimum wage and the living wage, to me, are the same movement. There are differences in the historical development and details, but it is all about paying all workers a living wage. To me, as Madeline may recall from our very early conversations, it shouldn’t really matter whether someone works for a business that has a contract with the city, it shouldn’t matter whether you are a big-box retailer, it shouldn’t matter whether you are a small business, medium-sized business or big business. Every worker in all businesses should receive a living wage. Now we might want to be careful as to how we find that number, but the principle holds.

The minimum wage — both federal and state-wide minimum wage measures — is built on the momentum of the living wage movement. They are more difficult to pass because the U.S. Congress and the presidency are dominated by right wing Republicans, but even in the era of Clinton, it was very hard to get anything passed. We had the increase to $5.15. So the strategy was to concentrate, as Madeline said many years ago, where victories can be achieved. If Arizona passes an increase to wages, you’ll have 19 states where the national wage minimum is lower than what is passed in terms of city-wide living wage laws.

We can debate whether we want to call them “living wage” because the Arizona measure, for example, raises wages up to $6.75, which is not really a living wage. For that matter, when the Los Angeles measure that I worked on with Madeline passed, it raised wages up to $7.25. That was called a living wage, and many progressive friends of mine, at the time, said to me, how dare you call that a living wage. A living wage is well above $7.25 in Los Angeles or $6.75 in Arizona, but these again are political victories that are mobilizing people around economic justice.

Amy Goodman: And yet, at the federal level, not even a raise in the minimum wage has been passed, and the reason, in the last go-round, was that Republicans linked the minimum wage to the revocation of the estate tax.

Robert Pollin: Yes, that was pretty cynical. I mean, how low can you get? Regardless of the merits of getting rid of the estate tax, and I think it has no merit whatsoever, but even pushing beyond that point, to say that not only do we have to cut taxes for the richest people in our society, but we’re going to hold up raising wages for the least well-off people in the society in order to squeeze out yet another tax cut for the rich… I mean, it’s too bad that the world situation is so horrible right now and not enough attention was focused on this absolutely egregious measure by the Republicans.

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: Taking it back to the documentary, “Waging a Living,” when you look at just what it takes for people to survive and live in urban and suburban environments, and you look at the security guard, and the nursing home worker who are generally involved in union drives, they are making eight, nine, or ten dollars an hour and they still cannot make it. Only imagine what people’s lives are like who are making $5.15 an hour. They can’t buy food. They can’t pay rent. They can’t pay their electric bills. They have to live part of the time in cheap motels and part of the time in their cars. It is just so unconscionable and inhuman. There obviously seems to be a huge disconnect between the U.S. Congress and what life is like for people.

Amy Goodman: Madeline Janis-Aparicio, speaking of the low-wage worker organizers, what about the people at the heart of this campaign, because I think one of the things that has come out all over this country, and certainly is emphasized in the documentary “Waging a Living,” is that these campaigns are being led by the people who are living below the minimum wage, or on the minimum wage or living wage.

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: I think that is in some ways one of the keys to changing this society, bringing up the bottom and really just making a more humane capitalism. There are workers, security officers in LA and San Francisco and all over the country who have been organizing a union, fighting for healthcare, fighting for a living wage, and winning. And forcing some of the biggest building owners in the world to pay $10 or $11 or $12 an hour and continuing the fight. There are many industries that are really “sticking” to the United States; they’re not going anywhere. These industries include transportation, hospitality, security and retail. The fight for a living wage can be the foundation of a better United States.

Amy Goodman: Professor Bob Pollin, what about the connection between the war abroad and at home? Can you talk about a war economy, about the U.S. putting money into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and what is happening here in the domestic economy?

Robert Pollin: There’s so many angles to go with that, Amy. This is a very important, profound question. Let me just take a stab at a couple of points. Like many other people, the global situation is extremely disturbing to me, and I blame a lot of what’s going on in the global situation on the decline of a vibrant left, both in the United States and globally. The Islamic movement has served to fill a vacuum that used to be provided by a really viable left that addresses the concerns of working people and the poor in effective ways. One of the points I want to make is that rebuilding this left is a long-term historical movement that has to take place. To me, it is absolutely critical at so many levels, including addressing the types of things that are going on now.

In terms of the war and the war economy, obviously at the simplest level of calculation, the expenditures on U.S. imperialism is — dollar for dollar — money that could be spent on education, healthcare, environmental protection and social security. So we are literally flushing billions of dollars down the drain that could be going to these vital things. Another point is that any kind of government spending stimulates jobs in the economy. That is the irony of the war; war is often good for the economy because the government spends more money. Now, that effect is happening, but it is happening to a much weaker extent because the money is being spent in Iraq, and it is spent on Halliburton, and it is not being spent on things that need to be done here. So there’s a lot of money.

Whatever the economic problems that we have, and there’s a serious threat of recession and so forth, these are all due to mismanagement and bad politics. There’s a lot of money that could be directed to meeting social needs and promoting economic fairness that just isn’t. The only way it is going to turn around is through building a foundation of an egalitarian movement, and the living wage movement, to my mind, has been the single most effective voice for this broader need as well in the U.S. over the last ten years.

Amy Goodman: Professor Pollin, as we move into this election year — and of course we are talking now during the Bush years — in your book Contours of Descent you fiercely critique Clinton’s economic legacy, which was the last time there was a Democratic president. What about what the Democrats have to offer or what they haven’t offered?

Robert Pollin: Of course the Democrats are divided, as the primary election in Connecticut when Lamont defeated Lieberman showed. The Democrats are divided among a corporate brand — the Clinton/Gore/Lieberman brand — and then there are progressive people in the Democratic party, and I know people like Madeline relate to them frequently. I myself relate to them frequently. These progressive people certainly don’t have control over the Democratic party, and a lot of the struggle around a decent left egalitarian politics is galvanizing grassroots movements that then can relate to the progressive wing of the Democratic party, and can give them energy and ideas and to have that wing of the Democratic party grow. In my book Contours of Descent I was writing about the fact that Clinton was a master of pretending he was part of this progressive wing of the Democratic party, but in actuality, he only reinforced the party of the corporate right wing of the Democratic party. That’s what characterized him, that’s what defined him as a politician.

Amy Goodman: What do you mean exactly about reinforcing the right while talking left?

Robert Pollin: Clinton was basically controlled by Wall Street. There wasn’t kind of any secret about that. When he first got elected in 1992 he was elected on a fairly progressive economic program. I don’t know that Madeline would have written it or agreed with everything in it, but it was actually written by fairly progressive people and it was pretty good; it was called Putting People First.

Now, before Clinton even took office, while he was still president-elect, Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin, both icons of Wall Street, told Clinton what his economic program was going to be, period, no questions asked. And he followed what they told him. That set the stage for the Democratic party agenda for the eight years under Clinton. The thing that happened is that you did get a Wall Street boom, but as I tried to document in the book you mentioned, Contours of Descent, the benefits of that boom were really not felt at all by working people, and certainly not the poor. The working people that have jobs — and this is why we have a living wage movement — their wages were falling for most of the Clinton era. Their wages did start to go up in two years, ’98 and ’99, and there was a lot of news about that. But that was preceded by six years of wages going down. Under Clinton, social welfare spending went down as a share of the economy. Even under Bush the first they’d gone up as a share of the economy.

These are the measures that Clinton was able to push through, that a Republican wouldn’t have been able to do. In fact the levels of social expenditure have not continued to go down under George Bush the second, they went down more under Clinton. So this is the kind of thing that a corporate Democrat, especially one who is such a skillful politician as Bill Clinton, is able to get through. The only thing that’s fighting up against it is the grassroots progressive movement, people like Madeline, and to the extent that they continue to succeed, they galvanize the left wing of the Democratic party.

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: I think one major difference between the Clinton years and the Bush II years has to do with the weakening or the strengthening of the labor movement, and the ability of workers to organize and to ask for and demand better healthcare and wages and better treatment. In the Clinton years there was a resurgent labor movement that made some substantial progress in key industries, and there were hundreds of thousands of primarily immigrant workers who were organized for the first time. That, I think, partly contributed to the increase.

In the Bush years there’s been a huge attack on the labor movement, and on the fundamental rights of working people to have a say in their job and to fight against abuses and to fight for a better life. Building on that, I think more significant than the living wage movement, or maybe tied to the living wage movement, has been a real shakeup in the national labor movement and in the idea of what is to be done and what needs to be done. Millions of workers need to be organized to be able to really intervene in the market enough to lift the bottom and to humanize this system that we’re in. And there are good people on both sides of the divide of the AFL-CIO and Change To Win — a new labor federation. But I do think that in fact the split has had the effect of galvanizing new organizing. I hope that in five to ten years we’re going to see significant progress.

Amy Goodman: Finally, what about the media and how the media covers these issues? Madeline Janis-Aparicio?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: Again, I think it is nuanced. In general, media is owned by very large corporations, and it is hard to get a working family’s perspective often times in mainstream media. But there is a level of openness that we have found can work for working people who are standing up and communities who are organizing themselves, and increasingly there has been more coverage in the mainstream media, starting from before Oprah. But certainly Oprah’s strong stand on raising the minimum wage has reverberated throughout the media. I think we have to continue to hope, and especially with programs like Democracy Now! and others, that we are getting this message out and we are able to take advantage of the opportunities that exist in the media. But certainly there are a lot of challenges.

Amy Goodman: Talk about Dollars & Sense, the magazine of economic justice that, Robert Pollin, you are a part of.

Robert Pollin: Dollars & Sense has been an excellent outlet. In fact there’s an article in the current issue on a part of the living minimum wage economics by Jeanette Wicks-Lim. Jeanette’s article is on a very important feature of the living wage effect, the so called ripple effect, which is that when you raise the mandated minimum — say if the minimum wage in Arizona goes to $6.75 — it turns out a lot more people get raises. The benefits are much more widely diffused than just the people that go from $5.15 to the minimum of $6.75.

Amy Goodman: Madeline Janis-Aparicio, talk about the issue of what is counterintuitive in studies you have done. What would surprise people and what surprised you in what you found?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: One of the big arguments used by people who oppose minimum wage increases, or oppose unions, or oppose raising the standard, is that they say that most of the people on the bottom, or making the minimum wage, are teenagers who are working for pin money, or for going out to movies, and that the vast number of people at the bottom are people who are eventually going to move up in terms of what they earn.

When we have looked at who is earning the minimum wage or close to the minimum — and you see this very much in the film “Waging a Living” — it is not teenagers, it is middle-aged people supporting families. They are stuck there their whole lives, working one, two, three jobs at such a low wage with such few benefits and such little opportunity for some minimal relaxation that a lot of this becomes drudgery and misery. So this was very surprising, that something like 40 or 50 percent of the workers who benefited from the living wage were in the middle-aged, 30 to 50 category. These are a lot of people who are supporting families on very little amounts of money, and they need to earn more money. So that really goes in the face of what a lot of opponents can say and continue to say. If you listen to Republicans who spoke against the minimum wage, that was one of the main arguments.

Amy Goodman: What gives you hope?

Madeline Janis-Aparicio: When I see people like the people in this film, workers who are fighting for a union, fighting for a better life. I see security officers, I see hotel maids, I see a million people marching in the streets of Los Angeles who are really some of these people, poor truck drivers who are immigrants, making terribly low wages, staying away from work on May 1st to demand immigration rights. That gives me a lot of hope that people are organizing, that there is a way to raise the bottom, make this a better country and a more humane form of capitalism.

Amy Goodman: I’ll ask you the same question and end here, Professor Bob Pollin, what gives you hope?

Robert Pollin: A lot of things give me hope, but I’ll point to the living wage movement as a great success. When Madeline first recruited me in, I said to her that there already are prevailing wage laws in place in different cities that apply to construction, and why don’t we just extend that model? It will be easier and the workers will get higher wages. Madeline made a really important point to me: she said, the term “living wage” has more resonance, and that is the foundation on which the movement will grow. It hadn’t occurred to me at all, but she was right. So the living wage movement is not just about raising wages, it is about economic justice more generally. The fact that this has been so successful starting from zero, roughly ten years ago, suggests that there’s a lot more possibility out there, and the mobilization around these issues is what is going to give us hope and that’s what’s going to create vibrant, left politics in the future.

Amy Goodman: Bob Pollin, Madeline Janis-Aparicio, thanks so much for joining us.