A Painful Lesson

A Big Error In Judgment Sank The Minimum Wage Hike

Jim Scarantino
5 min read
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Memo to supporters of raising the minimum wage: Instead of condemning the opposition for winning, get real about why you lost and at least learn something from defeat.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: “To me, I think it’s clear that people wanted this and we were outspent with a very aggressive, negative, misleading media campaign,” Matthew Henderson of ACORN told the Albuquerque Tribune.

They were expecting a polite debate? The amazing thing is that, despite over $225,000 spent to defeat the proposal, it failed by just 1,479 votes.

Let's be bluntly honest about why the minimum wage proposal lost. It lost because of a handful of unnecessary words. Those words required businesses to give “any member of the public access to nonwork areas to inform employees of their rights under this ordinance and other laws.”

Even supporters were uneasy about this language. We got plenty of explanations about how these words didn't mean what they said. We were assured this was commonplace, and that the provision would be eventually construed to not infringe on property and privacy rights or permit activities other than education about the minimum wage law.

But the clause says what it says. “Any member of the public” could go into a business' “nonwork areas” (whatever that means) to talk with employees about their rights under the minimum wage ordinance “and other laws.” It opens the door to everything from union organizing to NRA leafletting on the Second Amendment.

This sweeping language was not in City Councilor Martin Heinrich's original bill, which the Council defeated. It showed up later in the petition circulated by ACORN and labor unions to put the issue on the ballot. Why a detail like this wasn't left to be hashed out by the City Council after the wage hike passed has never been satisfactorily explained.

It gave opponents something to spend their money on. They rolled out a parade of horribles that proponents complained were misleading. But that criticism is pointed in the wrong direction. Because the proposal's language was so limitless, it was hard to say anything misleading about the implications of the access provision. For that, the blame lies with those who drafted the language, not those who exploited its vagueness.

Proponents complained that focusing on the access provision diverted attention from the real issue. But the access provision was part of the ballot initiative itself. It was a legitimately big issue. As a result, proponents spent too much of their time and limited money defending the access provision, or trying to get us to ignore it, instead of making the case that anyone who works full time should not have to draw on public resources to keep their families from malnutrition and homelessness.

To argue that voters really wanted to raise the minimum wage, but were somehow tricked into voting against their wishes, smacks of the sort of excuses we heard from failed Democratic consultants about why Americans chose George W. Bush over John Kerry. Besides selling voters short, its worst fault is that it dodges the tough job of honestly analyzing what happened and admitting mistakes in judgment occurred.

At least the opponents were objective about the contest. Sherman McCorkle, cochairman of the business coalition leading the opposition, admits that, were it not for the access clause, the minimum wage hike would have passed.

Another difficult lesson that must be learned concerns minimum wage workers themselves. Approximately 30,000 people in Albuquerque, most of them adults, earn less than the $7.50 per hour minimum that would have been established had the initiative passed. They did not turn out in large numbers to support the proposal. Overall, voter turnout was less than in 2001. In fact, fewer people voted for the initiative than cast votes for mayor. You can't blame this sad state of affairs on the Chamber of Commerce. Their prolific ads only increased awareness of what was at stake.

I've heard conservatives say the low turnout proves minimum wage workers deserve what they're paid now. They don't have the drive and qualifications to earn higher pay, or the smarts to give themselves a raise when they had the chance. I've heard liberals counter that the causes are societal, such as poor schools and the drag of a culture of poverty. There's something to both perspectives.

“Working poor” should not be synonymous with a permanent underclass from which there is no escape. Big corporations shouldn't be able to shift the true costs of human labor to taxpayers. Nor has the city lost its soul. I think most voters really do want to see the minimum wage raised and will support a simple proposal to make that happen. But what they were presented wasn't so simple. It overreached, and an opportunity to improve our community got away. And that's all there is to it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jims@alibi.com.

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