Nationwide, the push for a higher minimum wage is causing escalating traction: Minimum wages are creeping up across the country to reflect changes in cost of living, fundamental working rights, and the need to address a world in which people working full time cannot afford to support themselves and their families. Yet, to my disgust, I’m seeing a lot of pushback against minimum wage laws from a really unpleasant source: Businesses and individuals that label themselves as socially progressive and liberal.
Two instances in particular jump out at me.
The first is independent businesses that close and blame minimum wage increases, improved benefits requirements, and other employee costs for their closure. This is a dick move, and these businesses should be ashamed of themselves, especially when they proudly trumpet how progressive they are and how patronising independent businesses confers some sort of liberal street cred. Knowing that those businesses weren’t paying living wages before is disgusting, and blaming workers for your own business ineptitude is despicable. Businesses that do this should be deeply ashamed of themselves, and yet I see it happening all the time.
Moreover, I see liberals mourning these closures and viciously attacking minimum wage laws as a result. If only those uppity workers hadn’t demanded fair pay for their labour, this wouldn’t be happening! This is all the fault of agitators! I invite the people who go after workers in these cases to try living on miserable wages, especially in wealthy communities like those where companies make a big production of whining and then closing.
I am fully aware that when minimum wages rise, so do payroll costs. That said, there are a number of ways to address that issue, though one may unfortunately involve letting employees go (at least temporarily) to recalibrate to the rise in costs. Complaining that employees want to be paid fairly is not going to impress me, though, especially since they should already have been paid fairly. It’s disgusting, and there’s no recognition that improving minimum wages also tends to have an elevating effect on local economies as a whole.
If you were making $10/hourly at a store and you’re making $15/hour after a phased-in minimum wage hike (these things don’t happen overnight), you now have more money to spend. Some of that is going to go to making your subsistence life more survivable. To having enough food on the table, to being able to pay down debt, to being able to manage your utility bills. But some of it is also going to go to products and consumer goods in your community, spreading your earnings around to other stores that can turn around and use those earnings to offset payroll costs. It doesn’t happen overnight, but a net transference of wealth does start to occur even as local economies grow more self-sustaining.
This is not something that can happen organically. If some stores raise wages and others do not, stores with higher wages are at a disadvantage because they may need to charge more for products, cut down on staff, and make other compromises in order to meet payroll obligations. Thus, their products and services may be unobtainable for a wider class of people who can’t afford them, while others may simply prefer to cheap out and find a place that charges less (or can offer better service — a store that can only keep one clerk on the floor, for example, can’t always offer than focused one-on-one attention that a store paying less can provide).
There’s something deeply troubling about the notion that people doing ‘menial labour’ like retail, food service, construction, and so on are inherently worth less than other people. This has troubling implications when it comes to their worth as human beings, especially in a society where not everyone has access to the education and opportunities needed to develop professional skills. For example, some people have to work in retail even though they would really prefer to go to law school. Some people actually love working in food service and take their careers as waiters very seriously. All are of equal value.
The other instance I’m thinking of is actually very specific: A recent Fort Bragg City Council meeting in which the councilmembers debated a proposed wage hike for seasonal temporary workers from $10/hour to $15/hour. City staff pointed out that it was really difficult to get workers at the existing pay, while departments desperately needed these workers to accomplish projects around the city. Moreover, they noted, positions remained unfilled in 2015 and it was a huge problem — especially when it came to meeting mandates set by the council.
The council members, absolutely none of whom make minimum wage nor have any perception of what it’s like to work for $15/hourly, all of whom enjoy ample benefits as part of their compensation packages in addition to having independent sources of income, all of whom are homeowners with stable finances, viciously argued over the proposed increase. Several at least were temperate and commented that they thought it was reasonable given that pay hadn’t increased in an extremely long time and that an adjustment was clearly necessary.
Other devalued, belittled, and insulted seasonal workers with snide remarks and strident insistence that they were inherently worth less. Eventually, they ‘compromised’ with a pay raise to $14/hour, which is better than $15 — but still less than temporary workers in other departments make, and still insulting, that people would quibble for 45 minutes over a dollar when these workers provide vital services for the city and are also human beings deserving of dignity and respect.
We live in a world where ‘liberals’ — and Fort Bragg definitely wants to consider itself progressive, though those arguing against the wage hike were staunch conservatives — like to pride themselves on their progressivism until it’s inconvenient. Most wealthy people and many members of the middle class push back on minimum wage increases as soon as they’re inconvenienced by them, a telling testimony to their level of seriousness about justice for everyone.
Image: Fight for $15 on 4/15, The All-Nite Images, Flickr