Last week, the City Council voted down the Fair Wage Ballot Initiative, which would have allowed voters to decide whether to increase the city's minimum wage from the federal standard of $5.15 an hour to $7.15. But as the bill's supporters shouted out their protest, Bonnie Greathouse was much less disturbed. She knew that the night didn't mark the end of her efforts, but rather the beginning, she said, of something even better.
"I'm excited about losing," she said, explaining that now Albuquerque has a chance to raise the minimum wage to an even higher standard. Greathouse is a lead organizer with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a member of the Albuquerque Living Wage Campaign, and the group spearheading the effort to put the initiative on the ballot by way of a petition.
If the petition, which started on May 18, can reach its requirement of 13,393 signatures by July 18, voters will have a chance on Oct. 4 to make the final decision. The petition goes beyond the proposal brought before the Council, asking for a minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, which would rise with inflation.
Greathouse says that immediately after the Council's decision interest in the petition shot up dramatically and now volunteers from around the country are coming to Albuquerque to help with the campaign. Greathouse said the petition is "excitedly ahead of schedule," although she couldn't provide any numbers.
The Fair Wage Initiative has been a hotly contested issue (see this week's "Council Watch," page 10). It was killed by a 5-4 vote. Yet, despite the obvious difference of opinion on how the issue should be dealt with, none of the Council opponents outwardly oppose the idea of raising the minimum wage. The debate, as it turns out, is on how it should be raised.
Councilor Michael Cadigan, who voted against the bill, cited legal reasons as his primary motivation. Cadigan, an attorney, said he struggled with the bill, but eventually came to the conclusion that he doesn't think the city has the legal authority to implement such legislation. "It's a scandal for employers to be paying less than $7 an hour," he said. "[But] it's an area that's not the city's responsibility; we've got enough problems in the city that we can work on, we shouldn't be trying to play in the state or the federal government's arena."
Mayor Martin Chavez said he would veto the bill if it reached his desk, adding that it's an issue that needs to be dealt with, but at the federal level. James Lewis, the city's chief administrative officer, said Mayor Chavez is sponsoring a resolution at the upcoming U.S. Conference of Mayors to put pressure on Congress to raise the federal standard. "[The mayor] feels very strongly that the federal government has a responsibility to address this," said Lewis, who added that on a local level the mayor, as has been the mantra of every Albuquerque mayor for the past two decades, is working to recruit higher-paying jobs. When asked to elaborate on what specific measures the mayor's office is taking to recruit "higher-paying jobs," Mr. Lewis cited the city's economic development team and the local Economic Forum, as well as the mayor's upcoming trip to Paris, France with Gov. Bill Richardson, where a New Mexico delegation will attempt to recruit European companies to the state.
The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce is strongly against raising the minimum wage at the city level. "It ends up hurting those it means to help," said Jacqueline DuBose Christensen, vice president of business advocacy and government relations with the Chamber.
Christensen argued that raising the minimum wage locally could lead to a net loss of jobs because some employers might have to layoff workers, or would no longer be able to afford to hire new workers. She did not differentiate between locally owned small businesses and companies like Wal-Mart and fast food chains. She said that "businesses" might have to raise the costs of their services or goods, which would then be absorbed by the community and cancel out any positive effect the pay raise had in the first place.
Christensen didn't have any specific data as proof for her argument and instead cited the Employment Policies Institute, a partisan front group run by Richard Berman, a restaurant, liquor and tobacco industry lobbyist, as a resource.
Instead of increasing the minimum wage, Christensen suggested that energy should be put into education and workforce training, which would then increase the skilled labor force and improve wages. "Let the feds or state deal with the issue," she said. "The federal government should be addressing this issue and if they did it would be a legitimate leveling of the playing field."
One state senator did attempt to deal with the issue during this year's legislative session. Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, who represents northeast Albuquerque and is a former board member of the Chamber, sponsored a bill (SB 535) that would have prohibited any municipality from enacting a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum. The bill did not pass.
Beffort said the true intention of the minimum wage is to jumpstart young and unskilled workers into the workforce, and eventually higher paying jobs. Her response to lower-paid employees who have been in the workforce for many years: “Shame on them.” Beffort adds that there are numerous federal and state funded training programs available for unskilled workers (such as the Education Works Act, which provides assistance for lower-income workers seeking trade degrees), and it's their own fault if they don't take advantage of them.
City Councilor Eric Griego, a supporter of the proposal, said legislation to raise the minimum wage at the state and federal level wasn't likely to happen any time soon, and that the city should take action.
"George Bush, Tom Delay and Bill Frist, in their goodness, are (not) going to pass this," said Griego. "I just don't believe it."
A proposal to raise the federal minimum wage was turned down by Congress and the White House in March, and Griego, who is running for mayor, said that it's an issue he is going to make a priority in his campaign.
Both Griego and City Councilor Martin Heinrich, the bill's sponsor, said Santa Fe didn't experience any significant job loss since increasing the minimum wage a year ago. In fact, last year the number of retail jobs in the city increased by 200, in addition to an increase of 400 jobs in food and service positions, according to the New Mexico Department of Labor. Their gross receipts in the retail sector also increased, and their unemployment rate dropped.
To date, over 125 cities and counties across the country have enacted "living wage" legislation and out of those only a handful have been overturned in the courts.
"The minimum wage isn't a panacea to solve poverty," said Councilor Cadigan. Even if the standard were raised to $7.50, at 40 hours per week, that equals $15,600 (before taxes) which is less than the $18,400 federal poverty line for a family of four.
Although it's unclear as to when the federal government will increase the minimum wage, Councilor Griego said a raise in Albuquerque may be right around the corner. "There is overwhelming voter support for it," said Griego. "If this issue gets on the ballot, it will pass."