Tuesday night a large crowd of Montgomery County residents, including a strong union presence, braved fog and rain outside the County Council’s offices in Rockville to participate in the ongoing national “Fight for $15.”
Minimum wage laws throughout the United States and Maryland are a hodgepodge. Federal law, last changed in 2009, provides for a national wage floor of $7.25. Maryland’s 2014 Minimum Wage Act is gradually increasing the minimum wage here, now at $8.75, to $10.10 by July 2018. Making matters even more confusing, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County currently mandate a $10.75 minimum wage per hour with a scheduled raise to $11.50 by the end of 2017. But in the nation’s fifth most expensive metropolitan area, $11.50 per hour is simply not enough.
A number of speakers at the rally, including Progressive Maryland’s Justin Vest, spoke of the need for a $15 minimum wage in Montgomery County. One of the most powerful moments came when a Spanish-speaking woman explained with the aid of a CASA translator how raising the minimum wage to $15 would change her life. Choking back tears, she recounted how the ever-present need for money to pay the rent and buy food prevented her from being with her young son on his last birthday. If the Council passes the proposed hike, she promised to take his next birthday off to celebrate with him.
I spoke with several of the attendees during the vigil. Afterwards, I had a chance to chat with at-large Councilmember Marc Elrich who is leading the fight to raise wages county-wide within the Council and State Senator Richard Madaleno who is pushing for a state-wide $15 minimum wage. All of the interviews can be heard by clicking on the corresponding links.
SEIU member Jay Weaver describes the pain he saw as a child in New Jersey amid hard-working people who were barely getting by despite living in an affluent state because they never made much more than an inadequate minimum wage. Carpenter Henrik Erslev argues that unions lack the power to negotiate a living wage for their rank and file. Instead, he puts the onus on government to mandate that all employers pay a sufficient minimum wage to permit their employees to enjoy a decent standard of living. Retired business owner Dan Segal discusses how his involvement in the Fight for 15 is a logical outgrowth of the Sanders Presidential campaign. Buddhist nun Atara expresses doubt that anybody could live on less than $15 per hour in Montgomery County and hope that the Trump Presidency could catalyze a whole new generation of progressive activists. CASA representatives Alma and Romel comment on the special difficulties faced by poorly paid women and immigrants.
In my conversation with Councilmember Marc Elrich, he insists that Rockville and county seats across the nation are the ideal places to fight for higher minimum wages. Communities know best how much it costs to live in them and what local businesses can afford to pay he points out. He also notes that the incoming Republican administration is not likely to champion any minimum wage hikes so the burden must fall on cities, counties, and states. In response to my question about tipped workers, Mr. Elrich responds that current law requires restaurant owners to make up any shortfall between tips received and the minimum wage. So tipped workers, who currently do not make $15 per hour on average should see a raise if the proposed legislation is enacted.
The councilmember addresses worries that some small businesses may have trouble with the mandated wage hikes by noting that the Council has staggered the implementation of the hike over time to give businesses the opportunity to adjust and is also open to providing additional breaks to local concerns. He is confident that he has the five votes necessary to pass the bill but is nevertheless concerned because County Executive Isiah Leggett has questioned the costs a higher minimum wage would impose on small businesses and whether it could drive employers out of the county. Mr. Elrich expresses hope that he can win over the Executive since a higher minimum wage will benefit the entire county – not just low-wage workers – in myriad ways. In addition, he is trying to persuade one more councilmember to sign on to the legislation and thereby create a veto-proof majority.
Like Marc Elrich in the Montgomery County Council, State Senator Richard Madaleno is championing a rise in the minimum wage in Annapolis. Senator Madaleno believes a uniform state-wide minimum wage is preferable. It is not just, he says, to ask folks in Cumberland to work for under $10 per hour while their counterparts in Rockville or Baltimore are making 50% more. He does say that a piecemeal approach will ultimately get us to where we want as residents in other jurisdictions will demand the same wages that Marylanders – at least those living in counties and cities that have raised wages – enjoy.
Senator Madaleno contends Maryland’s ability to create good jobs and attract employers depends on our outstanding education system from public schools to community colleges to the flagship University of Maryland at College Park. He believes education is an area that lawmakers must never neglect. Finally, he expresses great faith in Maryland’s new 8th District Congressional representative Jamie Raskin. Congressman Raskin will be an outstanding progressive leader Madaleno enthuses.
Ultimately, Maryland’s fate is in the hands of the people and the lawmakers. Despite an obvious setback in the Presidential election, the progress that the Fight for 15 is making demonstrates that we can make Maryland’s future bright.