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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Why We Fight

August 01, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

Today, Friday, August 1, Minnesota’s state minimum wage rises for the first time in 9 years, increasing from $5.15/hour for small employers and $6.15/hour for large employers, both below the federal $7.25/hour minimum wage, to $9.50/hour. The wage hike didn’t happen casually. It took a concerted, intensive, multilayered effort and almost failed multiple times.

Minnesota’s minimum wage history challenges Minnesota’s progressive self-identity. Before the 2005 minimum wage increase, previous action occurred in 1998 when Minnesota’s minimum wage moved to $5.15/hour. Before that, it was increased in 1991.

While it’s true that, historically, Minnesota was an early adopter of minimum wage laws, the contemporary period has been a different story. As worker productivity expanded, along with rising business profitability, the state’s business lobby aggressively worked to portray minimum wage increase attempts as job killers rather than work rewarders.

During this past spring’s legislative fight, Minnesota 2020 researchers calculated that, had Minnesota 1968 minimum wage’s purchasing power remained constant, Minnesota’s 2014 minimum wage would be $10.70/hour. Had minimum wage gains kept pace with productivity increases, the wage would be a current $22/hour.

As wages stagnated, post-recession profitability rewarded the wealthiest Minnesotans. Wealth accumulation across the United States, narrowed into fewer and fewer hands while school funding declined, city services decreased and families bore a growing percentage of structural community costs through soaring property taxes.

Conservative policy, positing tax cuts as the solution for every federal, state and local problem, began to wear thin. The 2012 elections returned progressive majorities to the state legislature. Even then, the minimum wage increase didn’t occur in 2013. It took a year of additional coalition building, communication and economic research to induce action.

Finally, this past spring, the bill passed both state legislative chambers and was signed by Governor Mark Dayton. Now, August 1, the measure becomes state law.

This is why we fight.

Every August 1, the date when most new legislation assumes the force of law, reminds us of how hard we have to work for what in retrospect seems like simple achievements.

One year ago, August 1, 2013, Minnesota counties began issuing marriage certificates that did not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. That was a sea change.

The November 2012 election featured a state constitutional amendment that would’ve written Minnesota’s then-standing state law requiring that marriage only be available to persons of opposite gender into Minnesota’s constitution. Growing national challenges to marriage discrimination had convinced conservative policy leaders to enact constitutional amendments as a strategy to create a high barrier to change. Passing a law is difficult; repealing a constitutional amendment is near impossible under most states’ constitutions. Minnesota is no exception.

However, in 2012, 52.6 percent of Minnesota voters rejected the amendment. Emboldened, marriage equality supporters pivoted their broad coalition into the 2013 legislative to repeal the earlier Defense of Marriage Act, replacing it with legislation specifically forbidding discrimination.

This is why we fight.

What 2015 legislative session-generated policy change will become law next August 1? I predict paid leave. It builds better businesses, stronger families and stable communities. And, it’s overdue.

Paid leave is exactly what it sounds like; paid leave exercised under a variety of ill health-related conditions. Sometimes it's maternity leave, sometimes it's caring for a sick child, and sometimes paid leave is used to care for an ailing older family member. Or, most basically, to care for one’s self.

Listening to conservative policy leaders, you’d think that paid leave was the socialist revolution storming city gates. It’s not however, nearly so dramatic. In practice, informal paid leave already happens as workers use personal sick days to care for an ailing child.

California enacted paid sick leave ten years ago. New Jersey and Washington have minimal paid leave laws. New York’s paid sick leave law takes effect today. Those four states populations combined mean that 23 percent of Americans now have paid leave. As the National Center for Child Poverty notes, states have taken the lead on this issue, leaving federal efforts in the dust.

Paid leave overwhelmingly positively impacts women workers as women overwhelming bear a majority of family care responsibilities. Paid leave translates into stronger families.

Paid leave is a smart business decision. Worker replacement training costs are mitigated by retaining a strong, skilled and flexible workforce. With rapidly changing competitive business environments, high quality workers are a business’ most critical asset. Paid leave builds rather than debases that asset.

Finally, sick workers in the food and hospitality industry are the industry standard. Smart public health measures reinforce what we all intuitively know: sick workers compromise food safety. Yet, the industry pretends otherwise. Paid leave for a day or two of bed rest benefits the worker, the work team, the business, the customers and, given a little time, the greater public’s health. Better health lowers costs, it doesn’t raise them. This is why we fight.

Raising the minimum wage wasn’t easy. Ending the same-sex marriage ban wasn’t easy. Despite these achievements, there’s much more to do. Minnesota needs paid sick day leave. We build a stronger state, safer communities and secure families one smart policy prescription at time. Next August 1, let’s celebrate Minnesota’s entry into the paid leave ranks.

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  • W. D. (Bill) Hamm says:

    August 4, 2014 at 7:50 am

    John you glossed right over the fact that this minimum wage increase did nothing to fix what Bill Clinton did to us in the last big minimum wage increase. I call it the WalMart exclusion; it allows employers to put employees on permanent 32 hr. work weeks and get away with paying no benefits. I hear you Progressive Socialist constantly crying about WalMart dumping it’s people on Social Services, yet it was your low moral Democrat buddy who did it. This Minimum Wage increase wasn’t nearly as much about helping the poor as it was about boosting the ego of the Upper Middle Crust. You and yours just screwed us again for political gain.

  • Peter Rachleff says:

    August 4, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Great piece, John!  Such an important history lesson, such great connections between the past and the present. Yes, there’s much more to do.  Grappling with our history, especially the contradictions in our history, is a necessary step in the process of making Minnesota a place for justice, equality, and fairness.

  • Clark Bergman says:

    August 4, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    I agree on the minimum wage, although it is still too low for adults, and on the marriage equality.  But I am not a believer in what you are calling “paid leave.”  I interpret this to be paid sick time, not paid vacation or personal time off.  When starting a company 19 years ago, I made a conscious decision to NOT have paid sick time off.  Why?  Because where it was available (earn 5 days per year), some of my co-workers typically used it all whether they were sick or not.  Often coming to work when sick and taking sick time when they were not sick.  “Don’t want to waste a sick day when I am sick.”  Others never got sick and did not abuse sick time.  To even things out we lump “sick time” in with personal time off.