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As politicians fight, California workers struggle with minimum wage

Imagine earning $6.75 an hour. Now imagine earning $6.75 an hour for the
past four years. That’s the reality for 1.4 million minimum wage workers in
California. As the cost of raising a family has steadily increased, our
lowest wage earners have had their pay frozen while inflation has eroded
their purchasing power.

Since Gov. Schwarzenegger took office, the minimum wage has lost 10 percent
of its value. Over the past four years, the price of gas has gone up 44
percent, milk over 20 percent, tuition at a CSU 18 percent, and childcare 14
percent. These are the things that low-wage workers struggle to provide for
their families. And they can’t keep up.

Families are feeling the squeeze. According to the California Budget
project, over half a million working families in California are “officially
poor ” based on the federal poverty guidelines, which don’t even reflect the
significantly higher cost of living in California. In fact, more California
working families with children are low-income or very low-income than in the
nation as a whole. These dire economic conditions make the time ripe for a
minimum wage increase.

Even the governor, after a year in which he championed an anti-worker
agenda, now recognizes the popular appeal of increasing the minimum wage.
Yet his proposal for a $1 increase keeps workers in poverty. A minimum wage
of $7.75 is still a dime short of the pay needed to keep a family of three
above the federal poverty level. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation is
the only way to ensure that minimum wage workers can begin to escape
poverty.

Increasing and indexing the minimum wage is not only the right thing to do,
it’s an immensely popular idea. Seventy-three percent of voters support an
increase in the minimum wage to $7.75 and indexing it to inflation.

We weren’t surprised when the governor jumped on the bandwagon, even after
vetoing minimum wage increases the past two years. But we are surprised at
the opposition to the governor’s proposal among Republican Party leaders.

According to a November 2005 poll, sixty-two percent of Republicans (72
percent of women, 50 percent of men) support increasing and indexing the
minimum wage. Three Republican legislators voted for AB 48, last year’s bill
to increase and index the minimum wage. The Party leadership is out of step
with its own constituency.

And now we learn that the governor’s own legal counsel has filed an
initiative to increase the minimum wage by $1 while taking away overtime pay
from millions of California workers. What are they thinking? Now I have to
tell our members–the more things change, the more they stay the same. It
doesn’t matter that the Governor has hired Susan Kennedy or that he’s
apologized for the Special Election–this administration continues to give to
workers with one hand while taking away worker protections with the other.

There’s nothing that gets our members more riled up than a threat to the
8-hour day. Hypocrisy, though, comes in a close second.

The governor wants autopilot spending increases for his office budget but he
opposes automatic increases for minimum wage earners. The governor doesn’t
want to politicize his decision to increase his staff and his budget. Yet,
he wants to make the minimum wage an issue in his bid for reelection. We
believe that minimum wage workers shouldn’t have to wait for an election
year to get a raise.

Indexing is a rational, common sense way to increase the minimum wage.
Employers could plan for a more manageable and predictable increase rather
than be faced with larger increases motivated by politics. Such incremental
changes would especially benefit small businesses. If the minimum wage had
been indexed the last time it was increased, it would be around $7.75 an
hour, at pace with proposals being considered now. But the increases would
have been regular and gradual, easing demands on business and keeping
low-wage workers from falling behind.

Our neighboring states of Washington and Oregon have higher minimum wages
than ours and they both index the minimum wage to inflation. Vermont and
Florida recently enacted indexing. It is about time that California kept up.
Our growing number of low-wage working families need more than election year
promises –they need a minimum wage plus indexing to provide a ladder out of
poverty.

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