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LOCAL Announcement :: Civil & Human Rights : Elections & Legislation : Labor & Class

NO, Virginia! Minimum Wage is NOT Enough to Live On

Virginia's minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage and it's been that way as long as anyone can remember. Why change now? What's the rush? If you'd seen the Virginia Alliance for Worker Justice event at Second Presbyterian Church, on Thursday night, you'd know how hot an issue poverty wages can be. And you'd have heard every reason imaginable for raising the floor of income. And you'd understand why Virginia is way overdue in doing right by its low wage workers.
Virginia's minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage and it's been that way as long as anyone can remember. Why change now? What's the rush? If you'd seen the Virginia Alliance for Worker Justice event at Second Presbyterian Church, on Thursday night, you'd know how hot an issue poverty wages can be. And you'd have heard every reason imaginable for raising the floor of income. And you'd understand why Virginia is way overdue in doing right by its low wage workers.

Currently, the base rate of pay for an hour's worth of work is $5.15. For full-time workers, that's under $11,000 per year - about $5,000 less than the federal poverty level. It hasn't changed since 1997. Every year since then a few officials in Congress submit legislation to raise the minimum wage and every year their efforts are shot down. That's why 17 states have each taken it upon themselves to establish their own minimum wage that reflects their own values about what constitutes a fair wage. Six of those states actually have Republican governors, but only one (Florida) is in the South. Will Virginia be the next to institute it's own economic development policy for poor people?

Two Northern Virginia delegates in the General Assembly are ready to go to bat for this new legislation called the Virginia Fair Wage Act. Albert Eisenberg (D-47) of Arlington and Vincent Callahan (R-34) of Fairfax have formed a bi-partisan alliance to pass a bill that would raise the minimum wage in Virginia one dollar per year for the next three years. Thereafter, the minimum wage would be indexed to inflation and would rise in order to keep its value in the marketplace. "How many C.E.O.s have gone without a raise since 1997?" said Del. Eisenberg. "None," shouted the crowd of 60 people in downtown Richmond. "It's time that Virginia stepped up to the plate and did what's right for working families."

Andres Tobar, Co-Chair of VACALOA a Northern Virginia group advocating for the rights of hispanic day-laborers come down for the event. He talked about the difficulties that undocumented immigrants face when trying to get justice on the job. "Our communities have always been exploited by big business." Numerous people of color in the audience voiced agreement. Tobar then reitterated this statement in spanish. "And yes, this will be a bilingual campaign." Several workers from Telamon Corp responded en espanol (telamon.org is a group that supports migrant farmworers).

This bill isn't the first of its kind to be introduced at the Virginia capitol. Similar to the federal efforts to raise the minimum wage, the Virginia Alliance for Worker Justice has pushed for an increase like this one in the past, but met resistance from delegates whose allegiances lie firmly with business interests. "The business people will come down hard on our campaign when we put this bill forward," warned Del. Eisenberg. "Businesses are going to say that they can't do business if we raise wages. This is a lie. And they will tell that lie over and over again. That's why we need a big public showing to support this bill."

There were many calls for lobbying efforts to see the Fair Wage Act through. The Virginia Organizing Project is a member of the VA Alliance for Worker Justice. They've been organizing meetings with every delegate in every house district of the state around their key issues: Tax reform, racial profiling, and living wages. They'll meet with delegates before, during, and after the GA in the hopes of producing more accountable elected officials. VOP's chairperson Jay Johnson spoke to the crowd about turning out at the General Assembly this year. "You can keep your email and your fancy phones. Unless you put your face in the place, you don't matter."

Phil Wilayto of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality got up and spoke about the need to support this effort with more than just lobbying. "The General Assembly was not set up to fight for the cause of poor people. It was set up to make sure the rich and powerful stay rich and powerful." A voice from the audience shouted back, "Watch out Phil, you're steppin' on toes." "That's alright," he responded. "I'm not running for office." Wilayto went on to paint a picture of a possible campaign that would bring large numbers to Richmond's Capital Square. Next Labor Day, Wilayto forcasted an enormous statewide parade to celebrate the contributions of organized (and unorganized) labor. After that he pictured that same crowd showing back up at the General Assembly to demand a higher minimum wage. When the delegates don't respond with an "Aye aye, captain," then that crowd sets up tents all around the capital and waits for worker justice.

Charlie Schmidt, of the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage, spoke up about his work with Richmond's day-labor temp workers enumerating the exploitative working conditions that are common among firms that operate in Virginia's capital, often paid through city contracts. Low pay to start with, deductions for rides to the work-site, for safety equipment, hours of unpaid wait-time, no bathrooms, the list goes on and often amounts to less than the federal minimum wage at the end of the day. Schmidt told of a demoralized feeling among low wage workers in Richmond. He said they often don't feel that they can speak up for fear of retribution from employers and lack of community support. He pledged to talk to more people in the community as well as state delegates and urged others to do the same.

Brittany Allen, a VCU senior, came out to the event after listening to a presentation by Charlie Schmidt in her ethics class. A week later, just before the gubernatorial election of Nov. 8th, Allan ran into governor elect Tim Kaine at World Cup coffee shop near VCU. He was shaking hands and urging students to vote. She asked him if he supported raising the minimum wage for the state of Virginia. He told her that he was not opposed to it, but that he'd rather see the change made at the federal level. Allen said she felt encouraged that Kaine would not oppose the legislation if it came before him.

During a question and answer session, Delores Elam, a resident of the 7th district on Richmond's Southside spoke with skepticism and passion. "We need block captains in the community organizing behind this issue. I see a lot of people here speaking for organizations, but nothing's happening. We can't afford to be silent. If we let our fears tell us what to do, then we'll have no future."

Tiamba Wilkerson of the Defenders lamented that her own rent and utilities have skyrocketed while her job seemed to be valuing her less and less. She tied a number of hot-button issues together with the struggle over Virginia's minimum wage, including the treatment of migrant workers in Herndon and dissatisfied bus-drivers with Richmond Public Schools. Wilkerson was not shy about calling out anti-immigrant sentiment as "white supremacist" and pointing out that the interests of managers and workers are not the same. Labor issues are especially important to her these days. She recently received training from the progressive union SEIU, but did not join one of their campaigns because they were not organizing in southern states.

The Virginia Alliance for Worker Justice plans to bring people out from religious groups, labor and community organizations. When they formed in 2003 to welcome the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride at it's Richmond stop, they weren't sure what issue they were going to get behind next. Two years later, they've got reason to be hopeful. Danny Lablanc, President of Virginia's AFL-CIO addressed the crowd about a lobbying strategy for passing a bill through the General Assembly and illustrated how the standard process is disempowering to poor people. "About 20 lobbyists control everything that goes on during General Assembly every year and they're spread out between two buildings on the capital grounds. Most Virginians don't even know what's going on down there. And who do you think is effected by the delegates' decisions? Poor people." Lablanc talked about the various Chambers of Commerce that are planning to kick single moms off of well-fare and restrict immigrant rights even further. He said that in order to be successful, the Fair Wage Act had to make it's way through a political game where the rules have been rigged by big business.

While the AFL-CIO president was proud that "the CIO built the middle class in the US," it did not seem that he brought any union member with him to the event. Several attendees, however, did have union emblems on and they belonged to United Electrical. George Waksmunski, an organizer with United Electrical 160 announced that his union supports raising the minimum wage and asked that others support his group in return. "We represent state employees and Virginia is one of the only states in America that does not recognize collective bargaining."

King Salim Khalfani, executive director of Virginia's NAACP brought the themes from the evening together, urging the crowd to get serious about this campaign if they truly want to see results. "We need to organize, educate, and agitate, so we can liberate."


If you attended this event, please post your thoughts, pictures, suggestions.

If you picked up any of the literature about the Virginia Fair Wage Act, please consider typing in some of the statistics and arguments and leaving it as a comment. I'd do it myself, but it's late and I want to get this story off of my computer and onto the site. -Jason


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