Opening a new chapter in the continuing debate over Michigan’s labor laws, a coalition of student groups on campus is taking part in a ballot initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.85 an hour by the year 2006. Kicking off its campaign last week, the Raise the Wage Coalition hopes to place the initiative on the ballot in 2006 by obtaining 500,000 signatures before June of next year. To reach its goal, the campaign needs all the assistance it can get; idealistic University students who favor its enactment have the power to work toward this change.
In recent years, inflation has drastically reduced the purchasing power of those who live on minimum wage. Currently, this decrease in value has been accompanied by economic recession and a growing disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest Americans. Today more than ever, our lowest-paid workers are enduring a system that gives them little chance to fight against economic inequity.
Unfortunately, such pressing issues have failed to provoke a strong reaction at the national level. At $5.15 an hour, the federal minimum wage has remained stagnant for eight straight years, and the current administration has shown little interest in altering the status quo.
Michigan’s adherence to the federal minimum wage of $5.15 has signaled an unwillingness by the state’s lawmakers to provide better opportunities for the state’s poorest workers. While Democratic state legislators have pushed for an increase, their efforts have thus far provided no tangible results on this issue; on the contrary, these endeavors simply highlight their lack of power in the Republican-controlled state legislature.
In one of the most underemployed, sagging economies in the country, a $1.70 minimum wage increase would set a more solid standard for Michigan’s lowest-paid employees. Besides helping to bring many of the state’s poorest families above the poverty line, the raise would drastically increase the purchasing power of this group. Opponents of the raise have repeatedly argued that the increase would discourage employers from hiring and increase joblessness. But by increasing the purchasing power and self-reliance of many who struggle on the current minimum wage, this change would actually help Michigan’s economy by empowering the state’s poorest.
By including a provision to index the minimum wage to the rate of the inflation, advocates of the new proposal hope to solidify the benefits of the raise. The unconscionably long delay since the last increase highlights the need for such a provision; considering inflation over the past eight years, the purchasing power of the $5.15 wage has gone down 82 cents.
Starting a new drive at the grass roots level for an increase, campaign advocates are bringing much-needed energy to the fight against economic inequality. Beyond those individuals and families directly affected by the policy, the situation should concern anyone distressed by the current status of Michigan’s economy. But for someone who is actually supporting himself or his family on the minimum wage, the difficulties of taking part in this campaign are obvious. It is the responsibility of those who have the means to advocate for this issue to do and encourage others as well. For University students, the raise the wage campaign should present a clear opportunity to stand for the future of our economy and its workers.