Published March 16, 2006
Do the ends justify the means? For today, we'll say yes.
For the first time in nine years, Michigan's lowest-paid workers will receive a substantial raise this October as the state's minimum wage climbs from $5.15 to $6.95 per hour. This past week, the Republican-controlled state Legislature - which has long resisted Democratic efforts to increase the wage - cleared bipartisan bills to increase the minimum wage to $7.40 by July 2008. Gov. Jennifer Granholm is widely expected to sign the legislation.
The long-needed increase will finally restore the value of the minimum wage, which has languished at near-record lows due to federal and state inaction. And for that reason, the end - an increase in the minimum wage brought on by pressure from the Raise the Wage coalition - may justify the highly political means.
The rather convoluted reasons why this bill passed the Legislature give reason for concern. It's little secret that Republican state legislators approved this bill not out of concern for the poor, but rather because it was better for business interests than a widely popular ballot initiative pushed by the Raise the Wage coalition.
That initiative would amend the state Constitution to not only increase the minimum wage immediately, but also to permanently index the wage to the rate of inflation. In passing this bill, the state House and Senate hope to decrease support for the amendment and set the stage for its defeat or removal from the ballot.
If either of those possibilities is realized, future minimum wage increases will remain dependent on legislative whims. It's taken almost a decade for Michigan to act on the minimum wage, which has effectively shrunk each year because of inflation, and even that action was compelled by political calculation - not a sense of social justice. What's to say that, without the impetus provided by grassroots mobilization, future legislators will have any incentive to keep the minimum wage at acceptable levels?
Considering the Legislature's less-than-stellar record when it comes to adjusting the minimum wage, it is in workers' best interests to continue supporting the ballot initiative.
Detractors have suggested that both the legislation and the proposed amendment are horrible public policy - economically backward ideas that will cost jobs. Yet economic studies have shown that minimum wage increases have little to no effect on the unemployment rate. A far more serious concern should be the debilitating effects of an intolerably low minimum wage - at $5.15 per hour, the family of a single parent working full time still finds itself below the poverty line.
In acting to raise the minimum wage, whatever its intentions, the state Legislature has offered much-needed relief to Michigan's least fortunate. That's worth commending. But residents - who have indicated they would approve the Raise the Wage initiative by a four-to-one margin - should recognize the limits of the Legislature's actions.
Legislative action would be preferable to a ballot initiative, since bypassing the state Legislature simply gives up on representative democracy and often results in popular but flawed public policy. But without a provision to index the minimum wage to inflation, nine years from now the state's workers may be in the same situation they are in now. Perhaps legislators will see past their short-term political interests and pass additional legislation mandating future increases; otherwise, direct action through a ballot initiative must still be considered.