The Year of the Living Wage

By McGroarty, Daniel | The American Spectator, May 1999 | Go to article overview

The Year of the Living Wage


McGroarty, Daniel, The American Spectator


Political activists succeed where unions have failed.

As a proxy for Big Labor's political clout-or lack of it-the effort to raise the minimum wage has always proved a handy leading indicator. These days, however, the minimum-wage movement sends mixed signals on Labor's prowess. On the national stage, Big Labor's "America Needs a Raise" campaign suffered a setback in the waning days of the 105th Congress when Senator Ted Kennedy's effort to raise the minimum wage sputtered to a stop. It made a reappearance in January, as one of many measures lumped into the loot bag President Clinton lugged up to Capitol Hill for his State of the Union. But there's been nothing but silence since.

Even so, Washington's inaction on the minimum wage front masks a series of impressive successes around the country to raise municipal minimums to $7.70 an hour or better-in some cities, more than doubling the present federal minimum of $5.15. In Califomia's Santa Clara County, a so-called Living Wage ordinance requires businesses that receive tax abatements to pay permanent employees $lo per hour, with mandatory health insurance thrown in; in Minneapolis, businesses that receive more than $100,000 in economic development assistance are assessed a minimum wage of $8.25 per hour. In other local jurisdictions, all companies that win public service contracts are required to pay a super-minimum wage. All told, since 1994, Living Wage ordinances of one type or another have been enacted in 17 U.S. cities.

Who's waging this stealth campaign? It's not John Sweeney's AFL-CIO, its friends in Congress, or the White House. The force behind the Living Wage effort is a self-styled progressive alternative party called the New Party. Founded in 1992 by a collection of leftish academics and labor organizers, the New Party has resisted the typical temptation of third party groups to mount quixotic campaigns for the presidency. Instead, the NP has held itself to a state and local elections strategy, with remarkable results. NP-backed candidates have won zoo of the 30o races they've entered in a dozen states, taking seats on local school boards from Prince George's County, Maryland, to Little Rock, Arkansas, and in state legislatures in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana, and New York. The New Party even boasts a Congressman: Danny Davis of Chicago, whom New Party literature touts as a member, although Davis's official bio makes no mention of any political affiliation other than the Democratic Party.

But for the most part, on the national level the New Party is nearly unknown, though devotees of the Teamsters election scandal may recall a cameo NP appearance at a critical moment in spring 1997. Anonymous leaflets sent to the federal judge overseeing Teamster matters alleged that Federal Elections Examiner Barbara Zack Quindel-the official charged with reviewing Ron Carey's scandal-plagued re-election as Teamsters president-and her husband were New Party members, a minor fact made meaningful by further information that individuals in Carey's camp had authorized a donation to a New Party affiliate. Though the donation itself was a token $5,000, some suggested it was an effort in Carey circles to curry favor with Quindel-a charge she denied, even as she confirmed that she was indeed a New Party member.

After Quindel overturned Carey's election and resigned from her post, interest in the New Party-Teamsters connection ebbed. "The media stopped just when it got interesting," notes a source in the camp of newly elected Teamster President James Hoffa, Jr., the candidate Carey beat in the tainted '96 contest. "The TDU"-the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a left-leaning internal union group that backed the Carey candidacy-"is in deep with the New Party, and has been from the beginning."

The New Party's walk-on role in the Teamsters scandal may have left the mainstream media unfazed, but the party's electoral successes have energized the left. …

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