Let 'em eat cake
According to Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People's Alliance, the National Restaurant Association is helping to fund the campaign against Question 4, a November ballot referendum to increase Maine's minimum wage. Meanwhile, according to the restaurant association's own IRS 990 tax reports, NRA Chief Executive Officer Dawn Sweeney made $2.895 million in 2014, the last year for which records are publicly available. Never mind the 1 percent; that lands her squarely in the 99.9 percentile.
In other words, Sweeney, who makes fully 185 times what a full-time minimum-wage worker earns, is telling minimum-wage workers they should suck it up and sacrifice their financial well-being and standard of living for the greater good. Nice.
But it gets worse. Like many states, Maine has a two-tiered minimum wage — tipped workers are guaranteed only $3.75 per hour. Dawn Sweeney makes 370 times that amount. Good gig if you can get it.
One might almost think that someone who makes almost $3 million a year might have the decency not to begrudge a modest living wage for minimum-wage workers trying to eke out an existence on $15,600 a year. But apparently one would be wrong.
Here in Maine the Let 'Em Eat Cake syndrome is a little less pronounced. Here we have the Maine Heritage Policy Center and the Maine Restaurant Association taking aim at Maine's lowest-paid workers by opposing Question 4. In 2013, the last year for which public records are available, then MHPC Chief Executive Officer Scott Moody made $105,000. That's a mere seven times what is earned by those the MHPC is spending good money to keep in indentured servitude. And in the same year, 2013, the president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association made $107,000, again about seven times what minimum-wage workers have to feed their families.
The federal minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour, and Maine is slightly ahead of that at $7.50 an hour. Maine's homegrown opponents of raising the minimum wage love to point out that Maine's minimum wage is already above the federal level. Seriously. I'm not making this up. As if 25 cents an hour makes some sort of meaningful difference. Safe to say they're heroically scraping the very bottom of the arguments barrel with that one.
The federal minimum wage hasn't gone up since 2009. And here's a statistic I absolutely love: between 1997 and 2007 the federal minimum wage didn't increase at all, but members of Congress, who set the federal minimum wage, raised their own pay seven times. Apparently what is good for the goose is not good for the gander. Current congressional salaries stand at $174,000 — more than 11 times the minimum wage. But who's going to begrudge them that when they're doing such a grand job representing the interests of working people?
Purchasing power of the minimum wage peaked in 1968. According to the Maine People's Alliance, if that rate had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $11 per hour — and I have seen estimates as high as $14 per hour. MPA further says minimum wage would be at $22 per hour if it had kept pace with improvements in productivity, and $33 if it had kept pace with the income of 1-percenters. In other words, since 1968, the minimum wage has lost at least a third of its value, and since 1968 almost all benefits from increased productivity have gone to the 1 percent.
As I have written before, the working poor live their lives lurching from crisis to crisis. Their children grow up in a near-constant state of chaos and crisis. This is the life of millions of this country's working poor. Imagine your family income taking a 33-percent hit. Now imagine you started at the bottom and then took a 33-percent hit.
So that's the justice and fairness issue. But there are also good, solid economic reasons for hiking the minimum wage. The rich tend to squirrel away their money — one can consume only so much caviar and champagne — but the working poor spend it, and that stimulates the economy.
Like most opponents of raising the minimum wage, Maine Heritage Policy Center claims that hiking the minimum wage will hurt small businesses, but the MHPC website statement on the issue cites no data to back up the claim. An Aug. 24 Bangor Daily News op-ed by Preston Cooper of the Manhattan Institute likewise cites no data to back its claim that hiking the minimum wage would hurt teen employment — as if teen employment were somehow more important than adult employment. Cooper argues for a two-tiered minimum with teens earning less, but he fails to mention that this puts downward pressure on all wages.
Maine People's Alliance says Question 4 will help small businesses, because Maine small businesses pay higher wages than their bigger counterparts, and raising the minimum wage would create a more level playing field. According to the Portland Press Herald, Maine small businesses pay an average of $12.72 per hour, while big business pays only $10.07. That's largely why more than 500 Maine small businesses support Question 4.
The level playing field argument begs the question: Whose interests are really being represented by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the National Restaurant Association and the Maine Restaurant Association? Is it small business owners and restaurateurs who want to pay their workers a living wage? Or is it big, out-of-state chains whose fierce competition drives down wages and cripples the ability of small businesses and restaurants to pay a decent, living wage to their neighbors?
Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist. He lives in Belfast.