If you work a 40-hour week at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, your gross weekly pay is $290. That’s your gross pay, not what you bring home. Can you pay rent or a mortgage, feed yourself and your kids, buy gas to get to work, cover a medical co-pay if you need to see the doctor, put anything away for a rainy day? I couldn’t. None of us should have to. The proposed $15 per hour minimum wage is better. Your gross pay for a 40-hour week at $15 would be $600. That’s a more-or-less living wage.
Suppose, though, we had lots of jobs that paid above even the proposed $15 minimum wage? Imagine if we had more of the jobs where you think about your salary as amount-per-year, not amount-per-hour? Instead of being a $15 per hour worker, how would it feel to be a $50,000 per year employee? Or $100,000?
Those jobs are not out of reach, but we need to do a few things to bring them to our comunities. First, we need to create the right kind of education and training to prepare our kids to start in those jobs, and the right kind of re-training to bring our experienced workers up to speed on new technologies and new opportunities.
Second, we need to accept that many of the jobs people did in the beginning of their working years aren’t still available and aren’t coming back. All the talk in the 2016 presidential election about coal miners never made any sense to me. The coal industry employed fewer than 66,000 people in 2016 (https://www.eia.gov/coal/annual/). The solar power manufacturers and installers already employed over 260,000 people that year. (https://www.thesolarfoundation.org/national/) And solar power is just one technology in the renewable energy industry. This graph shows employment in solar, wind, and coal. Smaller environmentally sound energy industries, like wave power and geothermal, are just coming on line.
Third, let’s bring labor unions back into favor. When union membership was high, so was the number of families in the middle class. Unions protect people from substandard wages, benefits, and working conditions. Unions gave us collective bargaining, the 8-hour day and weekends, helped end child labor, expanded company-supported healthcare, and fought for the Family Medical and Leave Act.
Fourth, we need to develop an infrastructure that supports those companies and industries that are expanding. And all other factors being equal, good companies will move to states whose legislatures do not propose so-called religious freedom bills and other actions against our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. Forward-looking companies won’t move to a backward-looking state.
When we look for candidates for State Legislatures and Congress, we should ask if they will:
- Partner with with their colleagues to ensure that the hourly minimum wage is at least $15 and that it is pegged to inflation. If Social Security recipients get an annual Cost of Living Adjustment, so should minimum wage workers. Our elected officials should also study the justifications for why some jobs and industries are exempt from paying any minimum wage.
- Support federal- and state-subsidized job training programs for experienced workers and tuition-free vocational-technical schools for qualified young people who don’t want to go to a four-year college. Speaking of traditional college, our elected officials should work to take student loans out of the hands of for-profit corporations. They should investigate a national service corps that requires young people to participate in America’s future by dedicating two years to working in education, infrastructure, or the military.
- Propose that just as veteran-, minority-, and women-owned businesses receive particular consideration for government contracts, so would companies with unionized workforces. Our elected officials should support efforts to make the so-called Right To Work states address employee grievances more equitably.
- Work to ensure that their Districts and communities receive consideration for government-funded jobs, research, transportation, communication infrastructure, and other common welfare activities and projects.