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Brookline Newcomer

Toward a living wage

Published in the Brookline TAB

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 pretty healthy.

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 alternative.

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 theirs.)

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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