Time to raise the minimum wage
I had to laugh when I read Knox County Republicans Chairman Robert Carter's editorial dismissing the idea of raising the minimum wage. After all, when Carter worked at SAD 40 in the 1980s as a building principal, he always received a generous annual raise from the taxpayers. Not only did he expect it, he demanded it. I was a witness to it. As SAD 40's business administrator for 16 years, I was in charge of the "books." I did the annual accounting for the school system that programmed annual raises into our accounting and payroll system. It also happens to be public information.
The minimum wage in Maine has been stuck at $7.50 an hour for six years running. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed my bill to raise the minimum wage for Maine's workers in the first session of the 126th Legislature, an act of obstruction that I'm sure Carter is proud of. While the cost of life's necessities, from food to fuel to rent (not to mention health care) have risen sharply, wages have stagnated. Maine workers earning $7.50 or $8 an hour struggle to pay their bills, often having to make the choice between staying warm or eating decently. Carter's disgraceful disregard for this unfortunate set of circumstances is indicative of the disconnect between his right wing Tea Party allies in Knox County and the rest of the nation. Apparently the Knox County Republicans are unaware that a recent Gallup poll of Republicans nationwide revealed that 58 percent of them support raising the minimum wage to at least $9 an hour. A full 76 percent of Americans support such an increase, according to the same Gallup poll.
In December 1979, I was hired as the first business administrator for SAD 40. In January 1980, due to the poor morale of the workforce, the school board asked me to conduct an investigation into the working conditions, wages and benefits of our school bus drivers, custodians, school lunch personnel, secretaries, clerks, and teacher aides. I completed this study in March 1980 and presented my findings to the school board at their monthly meeting. My report stunned the board. A full one-third of this workforce were making minimum wage or less. There had been no consideration given to employees who had worked for the district for more than a decade. Several school lunch employees and clerical staff were still making less than minimum wage after 10 years employment. The school board was embarrassed. They asked me to immediately develop a new wage/benefit package. I completed this work in time for our April board meeting. A new wage scale recognizing years of service was presented. Wages were raised substantially in this proposal and no employee at SAD 40 would ever earn the minimum wage again. With the leadership of board members Samuel Cohen and Elizabeth Wooster of Waldoboro, and Albert Overlock and David MacMillian of Warren, the plan I presented was accepted by the Board of Directors in an unanimous vote. The changes in pay went into effect with the beginning of the next school year. The lives of 200 people, valued employees, were changed forever. Morale among school staff soared. It was one of the proudest achievements of my life. Under the leadership of David Gaul, Ronald Dolloff, and myself, SAD 40 entered a golden era of stability that lasted nearly two decades.
Apparently the Knox County Republicans chairman is unaware that the former publisher of The American Conservative magazine has recently made a compelling case for raising the minimum wage. Besides publishing this well respected periodical, Ronald Unz was also the conservative Republican candidate for governor of California in 1994. A successful businessman, Unz makes the argument that taxpayers are the ones subsidizing low wage paying businesses, pointing out that their employees are forced to accept food stamps and other forms of welfare because their employers have failed to live up to their responsibilities of paying a livable and sustainable wage. He's calling for an immediate hike to $10 an hour. I agree with him. It's high time the taxpayers stopped subsidizing these low-wage paying businesses. An increase in the minimum wage is a win-win for the economy. Workers will have money to spend at our local businesses, income and sales tax revenues will rise, many of these workers lives will improve and they will be off the welfare rolls. Welfare reform starts with a good paying job.
Contrast this plan to improve people's lives with Mr. Carter's vision for Maine. He reasons that "Increasing the minimum wage will not give businesses the incentive to move to Maine." I guess his economic development plans for our state are dependent upon attracting businesses who want to pay our workers $7.50 to $8 bucks an hour. Carter describes himself as a banker and like his Republican candidate for the Knox County Senate seat, Paula Sutton, he likes to tout "personal responsibility" as his mantra. Of course we all know what the bankers did to our country in 2008, crashing our economy and raising the real unemployment rate to 23 percent, when all categories of unemployed are factored in. In fact, income inequality in the United States just hit 1929 levels. I think we all know what happened then. Working people had no money to spend, businesses had few customers, and the stock market and economy crashed, resulting in the Great Depression. It's likely to happen again if we follow Carter's plan. The greed of these bankers has no end and the outcome is likely to repeat itself soon. And what did the bankers do in 2008 when they all went insolvent because of their faulty business model? Well it had nothing to do with "personal responsibility", did it? They ran to the federal government and to the taxpayers and asked for a taxpayer financed bailout. According to Bloomberg News, the US govermemnt and Federal Reserve have backstopped our banks to the tune of $24 trillion dollars. And what did they do with this money? They didn't lend it into the economy to create jobs, they stole it, paid themselves healthy bonuses to boot. These banks continue to benefit from the Federal Reserve's financial repression. By pegging interest rates at zero percent, our senior citizens are now forced to provide continuous backdoor bailouts for our banks. The certificate of deposits that once earned our seniors 5-6 percent in interest now pay them less than 1 percent. This represents financial repression at its worst.
I'm sure Mr. Carter's life as a banker included annual raises and year end bonuses as well. But he doesn't believe the worker who makes $7.50 an hour deserves a raise at all, even after waiting six years. You've got to admit it, it's a pretty good deal for this predatory class, and when combined with their radical right wing ideology, it reminds one of the fascism of the 1930s. This should truly be a concern to every Mainer who believes in fairness. Despite Mr. Carter's hollow arguments, everyone who works hard for a living in Maine deserves to make a livable wage. As Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz recently argued, "There are alternatives. But we will not find them in the self-satisfied complacency of the elites, whose incomes and stock portfolios are once again soaring. Only some people, it seems, must adjust to a permanently lower standard of living. Unfortunately, those people happen to be most people."
Perhaps there's still hope for the Knox County Republicans chairman. I think he should take a job for a few months at $8 bucks an hour. After three months, he can write another editorial for the Village Soup and explain to us how he heated his home, paid his rent and bills, provided for his children, paid for gas, food, health care and insurance, and most importantly, dealt with the daily humiliating stress of not being able to make ends meet.
Jeffrey Evangelos is the State Representative for House District 49. He resides in Friendship.