Bobby Kasper: Raising wages starts at home

Bobby Kasper

Unemployment is down. Corporate earnings are up. But for most hardworking Americans, wages aren’t going anywhere.

Congress and President Trump say their $1.5 trillion tax plan will shift wage growth out of neutral. Working people see the tax scam for what it is: a massive and deeply corrupt giveaway to millionaires, billionaires and wealthy corporations. With the gap between rich and poor as large as it’s been since the Great Depression, politicians in Washington are only rigging the game even more.

Here in St. Paul, we can cross our fingers and wait for corporate tax cuts to trickle down into our paychecks, or we can take matters into our own hands. We can cut through federal inaction by passing a $15 minimum wage that ensures no one working in our city lives in poverty.

The labor movement has a long history of backing legislation that improves working people’s lives, from the eight-hour day to child labor laws. Today, unions carry on the work of raising standards for all workers, whether they hold a union card or not. That’s why unions in St. Paul are leading the campaign for one fair minimum wage in our city, with no penalty for tipped workers.

Poverty wages are the biggest barrier to realizing our self-styled billing as the most livable city in America. St. Paul boasts an unemployment rate well below the national average, but an estimated 40 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty.

Too many jobs in our community aren’t paying wages that reflect the cost of living here. The state Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates people working full-time, year-round jobs must earn $15.31 per hour to meet their basic needs in Ramsey County. Anyone earning less is forced to make impossible choices. Do I pay the rent or buy groceries? Fill my prescription or my gas tank?

Too often, those choices fall on women and people of color. Poverty wages exacerbate our region’s yawning economic disparities along gender and racial lines. Poverty rates among workers of color are nearly four times higher than white workers in the metro area. Raising the wage to $15 is the single most effective way our elected officials can narrow the gap.

Working people in St. Paul deserve to see their wages keep pace with those in Minneapolis, where all workers are on track to make $15 by 2024. Expect low-wage employers and their front groups to trot out the same tired arguments and doomsday scenarios here as they did in Minneapolis. By now, you’ve heard them all – businesses will pick up and leave, employers will cut hours, the restaurant scene will wither.

Don’t buy it. Minnesota’s economy has thrived since Gov. Mark Dayton signed the statewide minimum-wage hike in 2014. Back then, the restaurant industry warned of layoffs and closings if the legislation passed. Today, business is booming in the restaurant industry, with job openings up 75 percent over the past year in the metro area. Cities and states across the country are raising the minimum wage gradually and prudently, without any signs of economic contraction. There’s no reason we can’t do the same in St. Paul.

Poverty wages are a real crisis in St. Paul, one that should be at the top of our city’s agenda in 2018. Mayor-elect Melvin Carter’s support for $15, both during the campaign and since his election, is encouraging. But working people have waited too long already for the gains of this economic recovery to trickle down into our paychecks. It’s time to turn promises into a concrete timeline for action. St. Paul needs a $15 minimum wage ordinance by next summer.

– Bobby Kasper is president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, representing more than 100 affiliate unions with over 50,000 members in Ramsey, Washington, Dakota and Chisago counties.

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