Speaker Saiki cites Obama to explain failure to raise the minimum wage. Really???

While Speaker Saiki’s recent OpEd (Honolulu Star Advertiser 5/27/2019) makes passing reference to “a blue state like Hawaii,” his arguments for why the legislature failed to ensure a raise for working people are more likely to make them see red.

The House Speaker invokes President Obama’s reminder that “most issues are rarely black and white” to justify the legislature’s failure to take steps towards a living wage.  However, what is writ large in black and white, online and in speeches made by national and local Democrats, is a promise to improve the lives of workers by raising the minimum wage so that families can survive.  Too many of our elected officials appear to have forgotten that the Democratic Party is supposed to be the champion of working men and women. In FDR’s words, the Democratic Party is supposed to fight to ensure jobs with an adequate wage that can sustain a decent living and a decent home, medical care, economic protection during sickness, accident, old age or unemployment, and a good education. Yet, amazingly, the reasons the Speaker offers for not enacting a living wage are all centered on worries about the employers.

University of Hawai`i students Ma Glodilet Rallojay (center), flanked by Allison Fleutsch (right) and Caroline Cech (left) testified in support of a living wage. Seen here in conversation with Rep. Creagan and H.A.P.A. President, Gary Hooser.

I have had a corporate career and I have run a small business. I understand the challenge of meeting payroll and paying the rent. But it is simply wrong for businesses, large or small, to count on paying their workers less than a living wage. When their workers then turn to the state for assistance to survive, taxpayers pick up the tab. Businesses should not expect others to subsidize their labor costs.

Slavery, child labor, and the widespread use of undocumented immigrants who have no power to negotiate fair wages have all been justified at various points in the history of capitalism as essential for business success. The arguments are not so far different from the ones heard throughout this past session: if you raise wages, employers will cut jobs, prices will go up, and the economy will suffer. It is simply not true. The Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice patiently laid out decades of research showing exactly the opposite. Given the importance Saiki attaches to President Obama’s words, and the convoluted argument the Speaker makes that raising the minimum wage could actually hurt workers as employers respond with layoffs or by cutting hours, he should have been motivated by the findings of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2016. They looked at 19 state-level minimum wage hikes and concluded that “the recent legislation contributed to substantial wage increases with no discernible impact on employment levels or hours worked.”

Senior policy analyst, Nicole Woo, of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, presented compelling findings from decades of research: raising the minimum wage is good for workers, for businesses, and for the economy.

Lawmakers were also pointed to two recent meta-studies that looked at scores of separate studies since the early 1990s. Their conclusion? Raising the minimum wage has “little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers.” In fact, it results in reduced turnover, yielding significant cost savings to employers.

Still, the Honolulu Chamber and a cluster of small businesses kept predicting dire consequences. Clearly our elected Democratic officials found their misleading testimony more compelling than the spectacle of families living on our sidewalks. While small businesses complained about having to take time off from their businesses to come to the Capitol to testify, the absence of working people who could not afford to give up income from their second or third jobs to come advocate on their own behalf should have sent a clear message to lawmakers that they needed to act. Yet they did not.

If Speaker Saiki truly believes that President Obama was right to call on us to “see ourselves in each other,” perhaps he and his colleagues will ask themselves if they could survive on a minimum wage worker’s annual income of $21,000 a year?

Social worker Marissa Buendicho speaks from personal and professional experience about all the dimensions of what it means not to make enough to survive, let alone thrive.

Saiki points to marriage equality, pesticide regulation, and more as policies that took legislative courage. What he left unsaid is the enormous multi-year grassroots activism it took to prod legislators to act.

One has to ask: why is it this hard to enact progressive policies in this supposedly blue state?

And no, it’s not because of anything President Obama said.

Note: the Honolulu Star Advertiser declined to publish this response to Scott Saiki’s OpEd, sent in the day after his OpEd appeared. But the issue remains very much on people’s minds as the continuing stream of letters to the editor demonstrates.  See this letter by Sheela Jane Menon in today’s edition of the paper. And this by Sid Goldstein on May 29, 2019.

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Posted in I BLOG, Justice, Living wage, Uncategorized, Workers' Rights

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