March 13, 2012

Protesters on the Commons Rally for a ‘Living Wage’

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Protesters, who rallied Monday on the Commons to raise awareness about increasing Tompkins County’s minimum wage, said that if workers are paid a “living wage” of $12.78 an hour, they will be better able to afford basic necessities, support a family, pay rent and accumulate savings.

At the beginning of the rally, event organizers from the Tompkins County Workers’ Center passed out bread from Wide Awake Bakery to protesters to break a 40-hour fast. The fast, which began on Saturday, commemorated a 1912 strike in Lawrence, Mass., during which workers demanded that mill owners symbolically provide them with bread and roses –– items that respectively represented decent wages and respect.

Laurie Konwinski, a coordinator at the Labor Religion Coalition of the Finger Lakes — the group that organized the fast — said the purpose of the rally was to be “part of the long haul to change society’s idea of what a minimum wage should be.”

Echoing Konwinski, other protesters called for employers to expand workers’ rights.

“Workers’ rights are human rights that cannot be denied by anyone,” said Rich Rose, a pastor from the First Baptist Church in DeWitt Park.

Pete Meyers, the event’s emcee and a coordinator at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, said that he estimated 150 protesters came to the rally, where various business owners, community members and government leaders gave speeches.

According to Meyers, the Alternatives Federal Credit Union determines what a “living wage” is based on the current price of housing, food, transportation and other costs. Such expenses, Meyers said, could not adequately be covered by New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s (D-N.Y.) proposal to raise the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.

One Ithaca resident, Neisha Butler, said she went to school but has not yet been able to find a full-time job, instead relying on many part-time jobs to make ends meet.

“What am I doing wrong?” Butler said. “My son deserves to have a mom that has the energy to take him to necessary outings.”

Defending business owners, Mandi Meidlinger, proprietor of Jillian’s Drawers — a retail store for babies — said that because of low profit margins, it is not easy for businesses to provide a living wage for their employees. Still, Meidlinger added, her company has made it a priority to provide all 10 of its employees with a living wage or higher.

“Owning a business involves responsibilities to the community,” she said. “We provide one to two weeks paid vacation, and for our full-time employees, we also provide health insurance at no cost to them.”

Ultimately, it is less expensive — and more advantageous for businesses — to pay workers a higher wage, since worker retention rates and productivity are higher when employees are paid well, Meidlinger said, adding that she spends the equivalent of 30 percent of one of her worker’s yearly wage on finding and training additional employees.

Tompkins County Legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne (D–2nd District) said many businesses “feel like they are going to suffer more” by increasing their employees’ wages. However, she said, the more than 77 companies in Tompkins County that pay all their workers a living wage have proven that this is not true.

“My hope is to bring to the county legislature a resolution that supports increasing minimum wage to a living wage, so the living wage becomes the new minimum wage,” McBean-Clairborne said. “You don’t have to have four to five jobs to support yourself.”

Currently, many workers who are earning minimum wage are assisted by programs run by the Department of Social Services, such as food stamps and Medicaid, Meyers said.

“If people are paid more, they won’t need to use these services, which will hopefully lower taxes,” he said.

Between speeches, protesters chanted, “What do we want? A living wage! When do we want it? Now!”

One attendee at the rally, Phillip Price — the co-editor of The Occupied Ithaca Journal, a bulletin that focuses on news relevant to the local Occupy movement — pointed out the relationship between Occupy Ithaca and the demands for the institution of a living wage.

“The Occupy movement, in a roundabout way, is calling for a living wage,” he said. “If redistribution includes a living wage, then so be it.”

Original Author: Jonathan Dawson