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Living Wages

The Tennessee legislature is once again demonstrating a shortsighted, anti-worker bias.

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In light of recent Republican electoral failures to communicate with Hispanics, immigrants, African-Americans, and hourly wage earners, pushing anti-living-wage legislation would seem politically counterintuitive. But here in Tennessee, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bill on March 28th that's injurious to workers and now awaits action by Governor Bill Haslam.

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Living-wage ordinances were enacted in 2006 and 2007 by the city of Memphis and Shelby County Commission respectively. The ordinances require that all employees of the city and county, as well as employees of companies contracting with those entities, receive at least $10 per hour with health insurance or $12 per hour without. At the $10 level, assuming a 40-hour work week and 52 weeks of solid work, workers take in approximately $19,200 before taxes, per year. This is hardly a fast-track path to prosperity, but the ordinance offers a modicum of dignity for working people. Who, then, could be against a reasonable policy that guarantees workers a decent wage and path to self-sufficiency?

State senator Brian Kelsey (R-Memphis) and Representative Glen Casada (R-Franklin) sponsored SB/0035 - HB/0511, which eliminates the right of cities and municipalities to prescribe wage standards above the federally mandated minimum wage. This legislation, under the guidance of Kelsey, even goes a step further and prevents any city or county from passing future "wage-theft" legislation.

Wage theft, defined as any instance whereby a worker is denied the pay that he or she has earned under state or federal law, occurs with alarming frequency. Two out of three low-wage workers claim to have suffered some form of wage theft at the hands of their employers. Wage theft targets the poor, the undereducated, and immigrants, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. Their lives can be completely upended by unscrupulous, dishonest employers. Proposed wage-theft ordinances would provide simplified, low-cost measures to quickly remedy such abuses.

Evidently, Kelsey, Casada, and supporters of this egregiously bad, anti-worker legislation hope to move the county back to the mid-19th century, when workers had no rights and lived at the margins of society, where they could be battered about by the capricious whims of their employers — their overseers. In this difficult economy, workers need support from legislators. But in Tennessee, the state legislature seems responsive only to managers, owners, and financiers. This legislation is one more example of a creeping, dangerous disconnect between the Republican Party and working people.

As the gap here in the U.S. between management and workers grows — 1 percent of the population now takes home 21 percent of all wages in America — it's difficult to understand how legislation such as SB/0035 - HB/0511 advances through and passes a state legislature in a state that is generally considered reasonable, with a diverse, mixed economy. Healthy economies and societies never grow from the top down — they grow from the bottom up, by supporting wage earners while offering them reasons to lay down roots and build neighborhoods and communities. Condemning workers to poverty and powerlessness is hardly an admirable or healthy model for social development.

The alternative to the Kelsey/Casada legislation is simple and clear: Pass a state minimum-wage requirement that guarantees workers a living wage and adjusts for inflation. This would provide individuals with an incentive to work, stimulate the economy by putting more money into the pockets of workers who tend to spend more of their earned income, and put workers more clearly in command of their own destinies.

Let's support people who work for a living. Legislators who would deny fair wages to workers here in Tennessee undermine the dignity of all working people. As a political agenda, the assault on workers, the working poor, and those who struggle to make ends meet is not in the best interests of Tennessee. It is merely another step in the "race to the bottom" with states like Mississippi and Alabama, which deny worker rights in a cloying attempt to build a "pro-business" environment on the backs of workers.

Workers in Tennessee, and in the nation, need friends and support. In the short term, let's hope Governor Haslam is one of those friends and vetoes this anti-labor bill. In the long run, we can only hope that hourly workers consider this legislative assault and support candidates who truly represent their best interests.

Bryce Ashby is a Memphis attorney. Michael LaRosa is a professor at Rhodes College.

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