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David Swanson: A Living Wage Revolution

A Living Wage Revolution

By David Swanson

April 22, 2006 -- The first sentence of the top article in the only daily newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia, today contains a remarkable analysis of the living wage movement: "The president of the University of Virginia on Friday acknowledged that students fighting for better pay for university workers have a valid case for change, calling the debate 'revolutionary' in its shifting of the poverty burden from government to the private sector."

It may at first seem odd to call a proposal for a living wage standard "revolutionary", because I haven't heard the students at UVA say one word about any private company picking up responsibility for people who can't work. All the students have said is that those who work fulltime should be paid enough to live decently. This was revolutionary about a century ago. It's now the firm opinion of most Americans and most residents of other wealthy countries, in some of which it's also a reality.

In President John Casteen's mind, apparently, the traditional role of private employers is to pay enough to get workers to show up, and then let the government make sure they have enough to live. Presumably the government is supposed to do this with resources extracted from the slightly wealthier workers. Otherwise, if the government were to tax employers and owners in order to provide for workers, that could constitute a back-door revolution.

The other curious thing about Casteen's statement is that he has been claiming for nearly a decade that the University of Virginia cannot require companies it contracts with for services on campus to pay a living wage, because UVA is not a private employer but part of the Virginia state government, so that only the state legislature could take such a revolutionary step. In other words, the students are appealing to Casteen as a representative of the government to stop paying poverty wages; they aren't even asking for Casteen's revolution.

Still – and it pains me to say it – I think Casteen may have a point. Something has changed about the relationship between workers, employers, and the government. More people are working longer hours for lower pay, and many fewer of them than in years past are unionized. The real value of the federal minimum wage has been drastically cut, and the ability of nonwealthy people to influence Congress has been almost eliminated. The tax burden has been shifted heavily onto the backs of workers.

In response to these conditions, we have seen a grassroots uprising of activism creating living wage and minimum wage standards at universities and in cities, counties, and states. See for data on these successes.

In response to the implementation of these new laws and policies, we have seen a revolution in economists' positions on the effects of wage standards. Claims that wage standards create unemployment and hurt those they are meant to help have nearly vanished from the face of the earth, hanging on only at the least influential of corporate-funded PR operations:

The living wage movement has also energized our democracy, at least at the local, regional, and college campus levels. People have learned how to change their situations through aggressive political activism. And many have begun looking to local and state governments to pick up responsibility in areas other than wage standards where the federal government also falls short, including areas that the private sector has proven itself miserably equipped to handle, like health care and environmental protection. Most recently, and most encouragingly, state legislatures have begun introducing articles of impeachment to be sent to the House of Representatives against George W. Bush. Now that's revolutionary.



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