National Democrats Back $15 Minimum Wage. Baltimore Dems, Not So Much.

Bruce Vail August 10, 2016

Union groups and other supporters of Fight for $15 rallied in front of Baltimore's City Hall ahead of a key vote on a new minimum wage law. At center is Michael Lastoria, a business owner of pizza places in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (1199SEIU/ Handout)

Just two weeks after the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty endorsed a $15 min­i­mum wage as part of its pres­i­den­tial cam­paign plat­form, local Democ­rats in Bal­ti­more are fight­ing to save a city­wide $15 wage pro­pos­al from a sneak attack — from none oth­er than Charm City Democrats.

In a tense City Coun­cil ses­sion Mon­day, leg­is­la­tion to estab­lish the $15 min­i­mum bare­ly sur­vived an attempt to kill it by City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Jack Young. The 15-mem­ber coun­cil — all Democ­rats, includ­ing Young — ulti­mate­ly vot­ed 7 – 4 (with three absten­tions and one absence) to advance the bill to a final vote next week, where its fate remains uncer­tain. The bill is in real dan­ger of fail­ing, Coun­cil­man Robert Cur­ran told In These Times, as advo­cates for the leg­is­la­tion have been unable so far to line up the required eight votes for final passage. 

I’m real­ly dis­ap­point­ed,” Char­ly Carter, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Mary­land Work­ing Fam­i­lies, said about Monday’s vote.

Ear­li­er this year, Work­ing Fam­i­lies and oth­er advo­cates were con­fi­dent they had nine firm votes in favor of the bill, but two coun­cil mem­bers who had pre­vi­ous­ly expressed sup­port have turned into oppo­nents, Carter said. That means intense lob­by­ing efforts will be cru­cial in the next few days to save the min­i­mum wage law.

Carter expressed relief that the bill sur­vived the Mon­day coun­cil meet­ing and point­ed at Young as the leader of the clique intent on defeat­ing it. Young took sup­port­ers by sur­prise in recent days, Carter said, with a behind-the-scenes effort to build vot­ing strength for an amend­ment that would knock the pro­posed min­i­mum wage from $15 an hour down to $11.50. He came close to suc­ceed­ing, sup­port­ers told In These Times, and the out­come of Monday’s vote was uncer­tain up until the last minute.

Stacey Mink, spokes­woman for the 1199SEIU Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers union, said that Young had angered some labor lead­ers by pledg­ing sup­port for $15 ear­li­er this year, only to shift his position.

Jack stood with us in front of City Hall when we announced,” the intro­duc­tion of the min­i­mum wage bill, she said, but some­thing has changed his mind.”

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, dis­agreed. He told In These Times that the coun­cil­man still sup­ports the $15 an hour min­i­mum. Young’s posi­tion is that the high­er min­i­mum wage should apply equal­ly to all juris­dic­tions with­in the state of Mary­land, Davis said, because oth­er­wise Bal­ti­more would suf­fer in com­pe­ti­tion with sur­round­ing coun­ties that have a low­er minimum.

He is a strong sup­port­er of $15, but statewide,” said Davis.

Mink stressed that a statewide increase to $15 an hour is impos­si­ble giv­en the cur­rent polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment. In 2014, the leg­is­la­ture passed an increase in the state min­i­mum wage to $10.10 by 2018 (it cur­rent­ly stands at $8.75) after a gru­el­ing polit­i­cal struggle.

Sup­port for the bill has been dri­ven large­ly by local labor unions. Ral­ly­ing in front of City Hall before the vote Mon­day, mem­bers from 1199SEIU and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees (AFSCME) were promi­nent in the crowd. In the past, UNITE HERE Local 7 and the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Bal­ti­more Coun­cil AFL-CIO Unions have also been in the forefront.

Lob­by­ing on both sides of the issue has been intense. The Bal­ti­more Sun edi­to­ri­al­ized against the $15 min­i­mum wage on July 25, repeat­ing argu­ments advanced by busi­ness groups like the Greater Bal­ti­more Com­mit­tee and the Mary­land Restau­rant Association.

The min­i­mum wage bill also took an indi­rect hit from May­or Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake, who holds the title of sec­re­tary of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee. One of the city agen­cies under her con­trol, the Bureau of Bud­get and Man­age­ment Research, pro­duced an analy­sis pre­dict­ing that a $15 min­i­mum wage would cause the city’s unem­ploy­ment rate to jump to between 8.2 per­cent and 10 per­cent, up from the cur­rent rate of 6.5 per­cent. Even worse, the bureau pre­dict­ed the job loss­es would fall most heav­i­ly on teenagers, young adults and unskilled workers.

Lob­by­ing has already been suc­cess­ful in con­vinc­ing pro-$15 coun­cil mem­bers like Cur­ran to soft­en the first ver­sion of the min­i­mum wage bill. The first ver­sion, for exam­ple, had intend­ed for the $15 to be phased in grad­u­al­ly through 2020, but that has now been extend­ed through 2022. In addi­tion, a small busi­ness exemp­tion was added so that the new law would not apply to work­places with 25 or few­er work­ers. And an attempt to elim­i­nate the sub-min­i­mum wage for so-called tipped work­ers” (large­ly restau­rant and hotel work­ers) was qui­et­ly sidelined.

But these con­ces­sions are not enough for the Greater Bal­ti­more Com­mit­tee, which is lead­ing the effort to defeat the bill. The group has been lob­by­ing furi­ous­ly against the bill for months and this week issued a call to action to its mem­bers to turn up the pres­sure even more. Com­mit­tee spokesman Mark Guidera told In These Times that the group had sent out a bul­letin to mem­bers fol­low­ing Monday’s vote, urg­ing busi­ness own­ers to zero in on select­ed mem­bers of the coun­cil to lob­by for a final defeat of the $15 bill next week. 

I’m not con­ced­ing any­thing,” to the oppo­nents of a $15 min­i­mum wage, said Carter.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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