Minimum wage, maximum effort

Feb 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

News Hits' trusted "lefty sense" started tingling during a recent trip to the Cass Corridor Community Center in Detroit. At first we thought it was just the cars parked out front sporting bumper stickers declaring "Recall Capitalism" and "I'm already against the next war." Upon further investigation, however, it turns out that some of the opening salvos of the campaign to raise the state's minimum wage were going on inside.

Tony Paris, a Wayne State senior and member of the Detroit branch of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), was gathering signatures in the center. If ACORN and the coalition of labor unions, churches and activists to which it belongs can collect about 320,000 valid signatures by the end of June, he says, two questions pertaining to the minimum wage could appear on the November ballot: Should Michigan raise its minimum wage to $6.85 an hour over the next two years? And should the minimum wage rate be tied to the federal cost of living index?

The state last raised the minimum wage in 1997, when it was set at $5.15. To put things in historical context, some of the big news stories that year were the Hale-Bopp buzz-by and the Heaven's Gate cult suicides (ah, those innocent days).

As of 2004, the last year for which data is available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 16,000 members of Michigan's nearly 2.9 million hourly work force made minimum wage. An additional 74,000 workers were making less than the minimum wage — these include employees who count on tips to fatten their checks. John Freeman proposes to raise their base pay from $2.65 to $4.35 an hour.

Freeman is director of the coalition to which ACORN belongs, Michigan Needs a Raise. He contends that tying the minimum wage to the quality of life index is at least as important as the initial increase. If the two aren't connected, he says, the fight would have to start all over again as soon as inflation ate enough of the new wage's purchasing power.

News Hits calculates that someone working full-time for minimum wage grosses less than $9,900 a year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a single, childless person younger than 65 with an annual pre-tax income below $10,160 is officially considered impoverished.

Since the federal government — which also set its minimum wage at $5.15 an hour in 1997 — has indicated it'll increase the wage as soon as it finishes legislation authorizing shipments of ice water to hell, Freeman says the only recourse was to take the issue directly to Michigan voters.

Workers with increased wages wouldn't exactly be hoarding their money, he says, since they'd most likely blow it all on such luxury items as food and shelter. In his view, business owners could actually see more money come their way as more dollars circulate in the local economy.

But stiff opposition is expected from chamber of commerce types and the restaurant industry.

Even so, Freeman says he's confident Michigan voters will choose to join the 15 other states that have raised their minimum wage above the federal norm. "Most people understand the moral right to pay someone a decent wage for a decent day's work," he says. "Everyone has worked at a minimum wage job or knows someone who has. All of us can understand the need to raise it."

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