Toward a living wage
Published in the Brookline
July 6, 2000
Town Meeting's most significant blow for independence in May was its
advocacy of a far-reaching Brookline living wage ordinance despite opposition
by the Board of Selectmen and Advisory Committee. We may not get a strong
ordinance once the dust settles, but right now Town Meeting's looking
Acknowledging that federal and state minimum-wage laws are woefully inadequate,
Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and three dozen other US cities and towns
already have living wage requirements. Varying in scope, they aim to help
employees of the municipality and of municipal contractors escape poverty.
Boston, for example, mandates $8.35 an hour, Cambridge $10.
Exceptions are generally made for employer hardship. Where the exception
doesn't swallow the rule, the purpose is to guarantee that every full-time
worker can support a family. The level of support is sadly minimal--$10
an hour is just $20,000 a year, not nearly enough to pay rent and raise
kids in the Boston area. Yet it's a whole lot better than the minimum-wage
Town Meeting authorized a Moderator's Committee to draft a bylaw covering
employees of the town and of those who contract with the town or receive
town subsidies or abatements. Striking new ground, Town Meeting also instructed
the committee to consider applying the living wage to everyone who works
in Brookline (with, of course, "appropriate exceptions"). The key word
here is "consider." The committee will study the pros and cons and examine
the many ramifications.
Patricia Connors, speaking for the proposal's supporters, articulately
defended a living wage for all. Demolishing counterarguments, she noted
that many low-wage workers in Brookline businesses are not students (whom,
I suppose, we're willing to underpay without pangs of conscience). Instead,
they're middle-aged or older workers who can scarcely survive on what
they get for slaving away at McDonald's or other chains while their CEOs
reap millions. The media fantasy that everyone's getting rich masks the
sobering truth: most job growth is at the service-economy bottom, not
the high-tech top.
Frank Smizik also spoke, representing Brookline PAX, a key organization
pushing this and other progressive issues. Smizik's call for a comprehensive
living wage was politically risky for his State Representative campaign--Brookline's
not really as progressive as PAX and Smizik would like. So it was refreshing
to see him out on the principled limb. (His opponent, Ronny Sydney, sat
in the audience watching; she says she too supports the Town Meeting position.)
(Unnecessary disclosure: Since my previous mention here of Smizik and
Sydney, I've met each for coffee, once. I paid for mine, they paid for
Now it's up to the Moderator's Committee, which should adopt two principles:
No one who works full-time should remain poor. And no business that relies
on exploitation deserves to survive.
These principles, of course, raise difficult questions for the committee
to consider. How can we make life livable for the workers who serve us
our food and clean up our messes--without making small business impossible?
Would exempting small businesses make it even harder for them to find
employees, who'd gravitate toward higher-wage chain stores? Should wages
be tied to the number of children a worker has, or perhaps to the profits
of the owner? Should the town itself subsidize small business so that
neither workers nor owners lose out?
To their shame, the Selectmen and Advisory Committee tried to banish
discussion of these sorts of questions from the Moderator's Committee
agenda. Exhibiting excessive pro-business pre-judgment, they sought to
weaken the proposal in two ways: first, by preventing the Moderator's
Committee from even considering the extension to private business, and
second, by having the Committee merely "consider" a bylaw on town employees
and contractors rather than actually write one. They may get their way
in the end, but for now their unsuccessful effort to restrict discussion
merely enhances Town Meeting's stature.
Here's my prediction: the Moderator's Committee will eventually approve
the Boston-style municipal living wage but drop private-employee coverage.
That would put it back in Town Meeting's hands next year, when we'll find
out if May's independence was a trend or a fluke.
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