In his April 3 BDN column, Jim Fossel writes that negotiations between state Democrats and Republicans over a minimum-wage increase “seemed like a bad joke.”
I am happy for Fossel that he apparently does not have to rely on Maine’s grossly outdated and inadequate minimum wage for his sustenance and can afford to take such a cavalier attitude toward the many Mainers who are relegated to grinding poverty by precisely such cavalier indifference toward their fate. Since the minimum wage peaked in value in 1968, it has lost 33-50 percent of its purchasing power and is not enough to lift a family of two — let alone three or four — out of poverty. Nowhere does this shocking fact find its way into Fossel’s piece.
In his column, Fossel presents not one economic reason for opposing a minimum wage hike. And with good reason — there are none. History and study after study demonstrate that raising the minimum wage is good for the economy. Instead of economic reasons, Fossel offers up a laundry list of tired ideological laments and reasons why “caving” on the minimum wage is bad strategy for the GOP — as if the fate of Maine’s working poor were some sort of chess match between Republicans and Democrats.
Fossel says it is unclear Republicans will get anything “in exchange” for supporting a minimum-wage hike, as if the GOP should exact some other pound of flesh for standing up and doing the right thing here. Rather astonishingly, Fossel points to “some sort of change in child labor laws” as an example of what Republicans might extract in exchange for supporting such unpleasantries as raising worker wages. But, Fossel rues, “that is hardly an even trade.” Perhaps Fossel would have Republicans junk child labor laws altogether. Would that be an even trade?
Evoking the bogeymen of “liberals” and “left-wing groups,” Fossel writes that such groups have made minimum wage a major issue in recent years. But these are workers, not “left-wing groups.” They are the people who harvest and serve our food, wash our cars and dishes, cut our lawns, clean our homes and hotel rooms, and watch our children. And this issue was not concocted by anyone, as Fossel implies — it is the direct result of the minimum wage falling woefully behind inflation, and of the resultant impoverishment of of a wide swath of America’s workforce. The reason Fossel’s Republican candidates have been “pummeled” by this issue is that they are as indifferent as Fossel to the hardships faced by America’s low-wage workers.
Seeing into the future, Fossel warns that “liberal groups” will view any kind of compromise as a “half-measure.” Well, yes, that’s what a compromise is, a half-measure. He further warns that no matter what the Legislature does, “liberal groups” will keep pressing for a higher rate and will move forward with plans to take it to referendum. Yes, and that is politics. It’s almost as if fighting tenaciously and tirelessly for dignity and a living wage were some kind of devious plot.
Fossel writes that “Maine Republicans have consistently argued that our economic policies put us at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis New Hampshire” and that in surrendering on minimum wage Republicans would lose that argument. Never mind that our minimum wage is only 25 cents higher than New Hampshire’s. Never mind that New Hampshire’s economic performance is driven largely by its proximity to Massachusetts. Never mind that the absence of a New Hampshire income tax translates into higher property taxes that hammer the poor, workers and the middle class, and makes it difficult if not impossible for them to own homes.
Never mind all that; what Fossel is urging Maine Republicans to do is make decisions that directly affect the lives of working people based not on fairness or sound economic policy, but rather on what is good strategy for the Republican Party. I for one would rather see state economic policy decided on the basis of what is good for Maine.
Lawrence Reichard is a freelance journalist who lives in Belfast.