I found today's cover story about living wage campaigns in The New York Times Sunday Magazine troubling mainly because of what it didn't say. There was not a single--not one--mention that the reason people are living in poverty and have to survive on minimum wage salaries is because of the lack of unions. Duh.
The story just feels like another lowering of expectations--people shouldn't expect real pensions because, as Robert Reich said when he and I recently discussed this on a radio program, that's just the way the world is moving, it's part of the new global economy and part of the need to be competitive so, get used to it. Same goes for health care.
And this story tells people that the frame in which we should be looking at the low-wage phenomena should be limited to the question of whether people should be paid minimum wage or a few bucks more. Look, there is no doubt that making two bucks an hour more is better than a sharp stick in the eye. And I respect the passion and motivation of people who actually work on the campaigns. But, if the progressive movement, with the participation of unions, is arguing that living wage campaigns that lift people up to, at best, $9.50 (in Santa Fe, for example), is alleviating peoples' long-term struggles to make ends meet, I'm not sure whether this is a smart tactic.
After all, where are we when even Wal-Mart's CEO supports a hike in the minimum wage. In the cover story, Wal-Mart's spokesman says, "So I would think raising the wage would have minimal impact on our workers. But we think it would have a beneficial effect on our customers." His reasoning goes like this: Wal-Mart workers, he says, make an average hourly wage of $9.68 (this is a bogus figure but let's just use it for now) but what's really great is all those poor people--Wal-Mart's core consumer base--will now have a few more dollars to spend...at Wal-Mart.
Another theme in the article--though not explored at length--is the way in which the living wage campaigns help drive up the number of voters who might go to the polls and, then, vote for, presumably, Democrats. I'm not sure I buy that strategy, either--though I'm sure the AFL-CIO, with no other feasible electoral strategy, finds it compelling. As the piece pointed out, voters in Florida voted by 71 percent to raise the state minimum wage in 2004--and gave George Bush 52 percent of the vote.
Even assuming Democrats could win riding the wave of a living wage campaign, what kind of Democrats would you elect? An anti-union Democrat could support this bill; so could a pro-war Democrat or many members of the Democratic Leadership Council. Look at Reich: he would support such a bill and he, with his love of so-called free trade, his call for workers to just get used to the competition and the "new economy" by becoming smarter, bears as much responsibility as anyone for pushing the kind of economic nonsense that has meant workers have to deal with growing corporate power (in the name of the "new economy"), elimination of pensions and health care, and stagnant wages.
Where does that, then, leave millions of workers?