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Today's minimum wage: not fit for human beings

Published May 4, 2005 5:13 PM

Every week nearly $150 is stolen from each minimum wage worker in the United States.

An hourly wage of $8.89 is needed to match the purchasing power of 1968’s minimum wage of $1.60, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics “Inflation Calculator.” (http://www.bls.gov)

But the current federal minimum wage is only $5.15 per hour. An additional $3.74 is stolen from minimum wage workers every hour. That’s a 42-percent wage cut as compared to the 1968 minimum wage.

The BLS cost of living figures usually understate the rise in prices of essential commodities purchased by poor people. One out of four families in New York City fork over half their income to their landlord. (Enterprise Foundation)

Over a year of 52 40-hour work weeks, this extortion produces an additional profit of $7,779.20 for the bosses from every one of these minimum wage workers. Two million people were paid at or below $5.15 per hour in 2004. That means over $15 billion was ripped-off by the bosses.

But the total amount of loot was much, much larger. Over 28 million workers last year earned less than $9.04 per hour. One out of three African American workers and 25 percent of all workers get these miserable wages. (Business Week)

Jobs, freedom and a living wage

Harlem Congressperson Adam Clayton Powell Jr. fought for years to raise the minimum wage and make it cover more categories of workers when he chaired the Labor and Education Committee of the House of Representatives in the 1960s. The 1968 rate of $1.60 per hour was achieved only against a backdrop of the civil rights movement and urban cities burning in rebellion coast-to-coast.

Powell’s fight for a higher minimum wage was sufficient cause alone for the wealthy ruling class—assisted by the conservative AFL-CIO President George Meany—to drive Powell out of congress. This is just one reason why poor and working people cherish the memory of Powell.

A. Philip Randolph—founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (which also had women members)—demanded a $2 minimum wage back in 1960. Using the BLS “Inflation Calcu lator,” this amounts to a $13.06 per hour wage in 2005.

Randolph’s associate, Bayard Rustin, raised this $2 minimum wage demand at the 1963 Washington March for Jobs and Freedom.

Considering the fantastic increase of labor productivity during the last 45 years—labor productivity in private business has increased nearly five-fold according to the BLS—a mere 2-percent annual increase in the real minimum wage is a truly modest demand. Add this small yearly hike to Randolph’s 1960 request and you get a 2005 minimum wage of $66,224 per year. (Or $31.84 per hour over 52 40-hour work weeks.)

Now with wages like these, it’s hard to conceive of drug profiteer Eli Lilly paying its chief executive Sidney Taurel $12.5 million last year—the collective wages of 1,167 minimum wage workers. Or Taurel’s fellow drug lord—Merck’s CEO Raymond V. Gilmartin—getting $5.9 million in 2004. His salary equals the collective wages of 551 minimum wage workers. (NY Times, April 3)

Millions of workers and their families would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. Side by side with organizing Wal-Mart, the labor movement must demand a wage fit for human beings.

Is an $8.89 per hour—or $13.06 per hour—or $31.84 per hour minimum wage an impossible demand? Vince Copeland, a founding member of Workers World Party, said, “If the people need something and are willing to fight for it, nothing is impossible.”

The writer is an Amtrak worker and member of District 1402, Transportation Communications International Union.