Mahony and Kennedy Lead Rally for Hike in Basic Wage
A host of political and religious figures--including Sen. Edward Kennedy and Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony--endorsed an increase in the minimum wage Sunday at a rally in the Shrine Auditorium.
“No one should be asked to live on $3.35 an hour,” said Mahony, adding that establishing “a moral minimum wage” would have a significant effect on “the survival of our most basic and treasured social unit--the family. . . . No wage should be so low that it denies to a family the basics for a decent human existence.”
Of the 7 million Americans working at or below the minimum wage in 1986, he said, 69% were adults and about 30% were heads of households. In California, he added, 57% of minimum wage earners are women, 25% are black and 36% are Latino. Mahony did not say how much the minimum wage should be elevated.
Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, has introduced federal legislation to raise the minimum wage from $3.35 an hour to $4.65, in three steps, by 1990. The measure also would create an indexing system to increase the minimum wage to 50% of the nationwide average hourly earnings thereafter.
Poverty Level Cited
“Today a full-time worker earning the minimum wage makes less than $7,000 a year,” Kennedy said, “That amount is only 77% of the poverty level for a family of three and 60% of the poverty level for a family of four.”
A bill identical to Kennedy’s has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Los Angeles Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins, who joined Kennedy on the stage Sunday.
Mahony, Kennedy and Hawkins were cheered by the 7,000 people packed into the auditorium, as were Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, state Sen. Art Torres (D-East Los Angeles) and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, all of whom called for an increase.
The rally was sponsored by the United Neighborhoods Organization, the South-Central Organizing Committee and the East Valleys Organization, three affiliated community groups that have made a major effort on the wage issue. Two bills to raise it in California are pending in the state Legislature, and a state administrative agency also is considering raising the minimum wage.
Kennedy reminded the crowd that garnering an increase for the first time since 1981 would not be easy. He said his legislation “is causing maximum rage, from Burger King to McDonald’s to corporate board rooms across America.”
Virtually every business organization ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the California Restaurant Assn. has come out against raising the minimum wage, saying it would not help low-paid workers. Most of the opponents contend that an increase would hurt potential entry-level workers and cause inflation.
“We strongly believe that any effort to mandate minimum wage increases will result only in greater unemployment and fewer employment opportunities” for low-skill entry-level workers, William Stone, a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Council, said in congressional testimony last month. He said the last minimum wage increases, implemented from 1977 to 1981, “resulted in a loss of more than 600,000 jobs through unemployment (jobs lost) and disemployment (jobs that would have been created but were not, because of higher wage costs).”
At the same hearing, Secretary of Labor William E. Brock said the Kennedy-Hawkins increase could potentially cause a loss of up to nearly 800,000 jobs. “Historically,” he added, “increasing the minimum wage has had no impact on poverty.”
Their arguments were countered at the hearings by Bernard E. Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania economics professor.
“Minimum wage legislation probably has an adverse effect on employment, but the magnitude of the effect is relatively small, and the precise relationship between increases in minimum wages and unemployment cannot be specified.
“Existing evidence, however,” he added, indicates that the minimum wage has boosted the income of millions of low-wage workers, “and the net effect is especially positive for adult females.”
At the rally, Kennedy and Hawkins charged that the criticisms resemble charges made when the minimum wage--25 cents--originally was enacted in 1938.
“Six times since then Congress has raised the level,” Kennedy said. “Six times we have heard dire prophecies of unemployment, inflation and bankruptcy. And six times those prophecies have been proved false.”
The two legislators said there is a particularly pressing need for a hike because the purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen by 27% since the last increase. A study issued earlier this year by George Washington University’s Center for Social Policy showed that the minimum wage is at its lowest percentage of the average hourly wage since 1950, representing 38% of the average wage in the country.
Proponents of an increase have acknowledged that President Reagan probably will veto the Kennedy and Hawkins measures if Congress passes them. It is unclear if there are sufficient votes to override a veto.
Kennedy said there are two other ways to have the minimum wage elevated in California. The first is by state legislative action. Torres and Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Hawthorne) have introduced bills calling for an increase to $4.25 an hour in 1988. Both measures are expected to pass and to be vetoed by Gov. Goerge Deukmejian.
Deukmejian has indicated that he believes that the decision should be left to the Industrial Welfare Commission, a five-member state body whose members he appoints. Earlier this year the governor said he favored an increase in the minimum wage, but he declined to say how much.
The commission is a little-known body with two employer representatives, two employee representatives and one member who is supposed to represent the interests of the general public.
Every two years, it is required to review the adequacy of the state minimum wage. The commission has the authority to set a minimum wage in California that is higher than the federal minimum wage, after seeking recommendations from a 20-member wage board composed of an equal number of labor and management representatives.
The commission declined to raise the minimum wage in 1983 and 1985. Last month, the wage board deadlocked 10 to 10 on motions related to the issue.
The commission is expected to act on the issue at its October meeting. The two labor members--Michael Callahan, a retired official of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, and David Padilla, a retired official of the Teamsters union--have expressed support for an increase. At Sunday’s rally, Callahan said he would propose an increase to $5.01 in 1988 and 40-cent hikes for the next two years. The three other members of the commission opposed an increase in 1985.
No Decision on Vote
Lynnel Pollock, commission chairman and a farmer in Woodland, and Muriel Morse, former personnel director of the City of Los Angeles, said in interviews that they have not reached a decision on how they will vote this year. The other employer representative, James Rude, a hospital executive from Sacramento, was unavailable for comment.
In 1986, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said there were 322,000 Californians working at the minimum wage, 358,000 earning between $3.36 and $3.49 an hour and 837,000 making $3.50 to $4.49 an hour.
Studies cited by proponents of an increase show that the minimum wage would have to be raised to $5.38 an hour for it to have the purchasing power it did in 1967, when the minimum was $1.65 an hour.
In an interview, one of the speakers at Sunday’s rally, Father John Seymour, pastor at Ascenscion Church in South Los Angeles, said a number of his parishioners, like Martha Johnson, are low-wage workers who barely make ends meet, even with public assistance.
Johnson, a $4-an-hour janitor, said she knows exactly what she would do with the extra money if the minimum wage were raised:
“I would treat my two kids--take them to the Pizza Hut and Chuck E. Cheese.”
Seymour responded: “As members of the California Restaurant Assn., both of those chains are opposed to an increase in the minimum wage. They don’t seem to understand that if people had more money, they’d be better able to go to their places.”