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Minnesota’s Carlbom: Sell Minimum Wage on Dignity, Not Class Warfare

Richard Carlbom helped organize the successful campaign to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota (first weddings happen Thursday—but don't check the Target registry!). He may turn his attention to efforts to raise the minimum wage. If he does, he has a messaging strategy that South Dakotans pressing a minimum-wage ballot measure may want to keep in mind:

Other issues can capture the imaginations of people. Take minimum wage. We can talk about that in a different way. I see us now talking about minimum wage as the workers versus big business. I don’t think that will ultimately win.

What we need to say is that minimum wage is about making sure people don’t live in poverty. Poverty is a serious problem, not just in the Twin Cities but throughout the state of Minnesota. I’m convinced that [if] we connect with people in a meaningful way about the impact of poverty in society, and the fact that the minimum wage is a surefire way of lifting people out of poverty and into new opportunities, we can capture the imaginations of people. This is about treating people with dignity, and making sure they themselves have an opportunity to determine their future, rather than struggling day by day to put potatoes and bread on the table.

We can move this from partisanship and class warfare into a deeper conversation. What do we want our communities to be about? Do we want our communities to be about people who pay rent and put food on the table? Or do we want our communities’ single-greatest effort each week to be making sure that we fill the food bank on Sundays? [Richard Carlbom, quoted in Lori Sturdevant, "Minnesota Sees the Outcome of a Grass-Roots Effort," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2013.07.27]

Big business is exploiting workers. That exploitation may be worse in this generation: now that we've adopted the two-income family as the norm, employers can excuse low wages for their workers by assuming those workers' spouses can land the jobs that provide living wages.

But Carlbom doesn't want us to waste time portraying anyone as the enemy. Carlbom says the best way to sell the minimum wage (not that it needs much selling, according to the Hart Research poll we discussed earlier this morning) is to speak in terms of treating every person with dignity.

Carlbom may be harkening to the living-wage argument I've been formulating with respect to work and pay. A minimum wage says that no matter who you are, no matter how much education you have, no matter what work you do, if you surrender your time and liberty to an employer for half of your waking hours, you deserve pay that will meet your basic needs. A minimum wage says your labor, your liberty, and your life have value and that none of us should get our cheeseburgers and clean toilets and crisp white motel sheets without paying for that value.

Raising South Dakota's minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 doesn't get anyone but single workers with no family above the basic living wage hump. (Huffington Post and Wider Opportunities for Women contend I'm being generous; their data say that even a single worker needs $10.20 an hour to make ends meet in Hanson County, the cheapest county in the USA). But it's a step toward recognizing the basic dignity of all workers who show up to do what someone else tells them to do.


  1. Donald Pay 2013.07.28

    I come at this from a different angle. No one cares what the majority of Americans think, because the political structure serves the interests of the people who have bought it---the super wealthy leech class.

    Anyone ever see someone in Mitt Romney's economic class actually work? They should be paid accordingly.

    There are precious few CEOs or even Vice Presidents of large corporations who do anything of value for the companies they run. Mostly they attend meetings and events for which they and their business gets tax deductions. In most cases, eliminate the CEO and all the Vice Presidents and their bloated compensation packages, and the actual work of most places gets done better and with greater economic efficiency. There are entire industries of leaches, like the hedge fund crooks, who are vastly overcompensated to cheat everyone else out of the money they actually earn. You could legislate these crooks out of business and redistribute their money to the more productive areas of the economy.

    The problem is we've got a highly compensated leech class that produces nothing and does nothing but acquire more and more wealth for itself by any means, legal and illegal. And these people run the political class. What the public thinks about the minimum wage doesn't matter.

  2. David Newquist 2013.07.28

    Donald Pay reflects a the front-page headline in the New York Times this morning that 4 out of five Americans face joblessness or poverty. It is a bit difficult to take a magnanimous stance on behalf of human dignity and not acknowledge that 80 percent of Americans are facing destitution because of a deliberate application of economic practice that for 30 years has been used to weaken and make subservients out of people who work for others. It is the motive force behind the decline of the middle class, an intentional design to return to a a system of corporate feudalism that creates an aristocracy that rules over a serfdom. It has been clearly articulated when Mitt Romney condemned 47 percent of the people as moochers and Paul Ryan said it was 33 percent. The harsh fact is that 80 percent of the population has been pushed into the ranks of those who need help to survive, and the question is how much longer will it be before they realize they are in that state because of a political and social movement that intentionally designed to diminish them. That movement was clearly demonstrated when Gov. Scott Walker disenfranchised the public workers in his state and a number of other states followed suit. It is further evident in the movements to disenfranchise voters throughout the states, impose the right to life on fetuses but eliminate it for people like Trayvon Martin, and to turn the education system into a program of mass indoctrination that removes the study of the humanities and concentrates on the production of human robots, who will not be given the knowledge of humankind’s struggles for liberty, equality, and justice.

    When the 80 percent realize they are the victims of a social and political pogrom, it is unlikely that they will choose the ballot box as their means of redress.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.28

    Dang: so while we wave the flag for an increase from poverty wages to poverty wages with tips for the bottom 5% of South Dakota workers, we let the "leech class" continue marching the 80% back to serfdom? Is the minimum-wage initiative that misguided?

    If it is, what initiative measures could we wage in response to the greater problem? We can't legislate the leech class out of existence... can we? Can we propose a maximum wage? Do we just need to restore the 1950s income-tax structure?

  4. Roger Elgersma 2013.07.28

    Bringing the fifties tax structure back sure would balance the budget. Those who want the budget balanced the most are the most against the higher taxes. The rich got used to having their cake and eating it too.
    Romney said in a speech at the convention that he respected the workers who lost good paying jobs and took two lower paying jobs to try and balance their budget. If he really respected the workers he would not have paid for such cheap lawn service that they had to hire illegals. Talk of respecting a worker and paying for it is two different things to his type.

  5. Douglas Wiken 2013.07.28

    No matter what the left or middle class calls sensible distribution of wealth, taxes, etc, the money leeches and their press cohorts will label any rational economic policy or tax policy class warfare.

  6. Donald Pay 2013.07.28

    Immediately raise the minimum wage to the living wage. Provide a 10-year, gradually diminishing subsidy to small businesses through the tax code in order cushion the economic impact to business sectors that have traditionally depended on minimum wage workers. Tax businesses partly on the spread between their lowest paid workers and their highest paid executives, and use that revenue to provide tax benefits to the lower and middle income workers.

  7. Old guy 2013.07.28

    Of the companies CEO's that I know as well as my company all having starting wages above the proposed minimum wage. I am sure some people do pay minimum but other that fast food I don't know of any. Could somebody help me out with what industry or companies pay minimum?

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2013.07.28

    Good question Old Guy. I can add a few jobs to the minimum wage list:
    Health care that does not require a degree
    Caring for elderly, disabled, etc.
    School aides
    Restaurant kitchens-not cooks
    Manual highway crews
    State and national park workers
    Factory assemblers
    Taxi drivers
    Car washers

    All these do not require education above high school. Also, some places do pay such workers above minimum, but they are rare, and pay isn't much above minimum.

  9. Douglas Wiken 2013.07.28

    Retail store clerks aren't getting rich either. Between short hours and wages either at minimum or barely above many are on the edge of economic collapse. That is why so many families must have both father and mother working.

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.29

    Dang—Donald for Senate! Or could we get you to move back here and run for House?)

    I like the living-wage subsidy idea: it would be transition funding, transferring what we currently spend on welfare to keep minimum-wage workers from starving to direct wages. That transition period would give businesses a cushion until the economic growth from higher working-class wages kicks in and makes it easier for them to pay those higher wages.

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