Montgomery County Council Minimum Wage Power Play (With Comments)

Local politicians have more power to raise the minimum wage than the president of the U.S. and the governor of Maryland.

MarcElrich

MARC ELRICH

The Montgomery County Council, Prince George’s County Council, and D.C. City Council have passed nearly identical bills raising the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2017.

Here’s the backstory: Three neighboring jurisdictions joined a “pact” for a regional minimum wage in defiance of the $7.25 Federal law observed in Maryland. And it’s perfectly legal.

What’s the plot? Is this a holy alliance or a nefarious conspiracy? It depends on your point of view. Either way, it’s a bold maneuver to outflank the minimum-wage prerogatives of both the federal and state governments.

Might this portend emergence of the modern city-state? Something to keep in mind when you vote in local elections. Local is important.

The standard textbook model of a minimum wage ...

The standard textbook model of a minimum wage set above the equilibrium wage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At this writing, Federal and Maryland governments have been unwilling or unable to junk the worthless $7.25 minimum wage. Dysfunction in Washington and inaction in Annapolis.

Enter intrepid local pols of Maryland and D.C. (stage left) to rescue the working poor.

The three-jurisdiction pact was brokered by Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich, who apparently demonstrated superb leadership despite the fact that he was not authorized to commit his fellow council members.

Popular support for the minimum wage is stipulated in all three jurisdictions. But so is opposition from the business community. In my view, regional cooperation of this magnitude would not be possible if we had Republicans around to throw sand in the gears. All council members in Montgomery, Prince George’s and D.C. are currently Democrats. Even though they’re all Democrats, they represent a range of economic interests.

Despite Democratic solidarity, Prince George’s and D.C. lacked confidence in Montgomery’s ability to uphold the pact, and with good reason. They told Montgomery County: “You jump off the cliff first.”

And so the Montgomery Council held a snarky debate on Tuesday, Nov. 26. When the dust settled, the members voted 8-1 vote to raise the minimum wage.

Despite the pose of near unanimity, the Montgomery Council was sharply divided. All members claimed to support a minimum wage increase. But six also wanted to placate  the business community. They differed over “how low can we go.” A token raise to $8 or $9 would have been welcomed by some.

A six-member majority of the all-Democratic council was allegedly prepared to delay or defang the wage bill. Only three members — Elrich, Nancy Navarro, and Valerie Ervin —  were fully committed to an $11.50 minimum phased in between October 2014 and October 2016. (That’s three years in the future, for those of you keeping score.)

Minwage3

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With each effort to reduce the wage, Navarro asked why the poor always get thrown under the bus. (My words, not her’s, but same sentiment.) Ervin called for “courage” and “heart” to retain the $11.50 target.

Count Council member George Leventhal as a fourth supporter. However, Leventhal seemed willing to make accommodations with opponents. His many and lengthy statements succeeded in obfuscating his position on the fine points. To be fair, Leventhal is chairman of the committee that reported the bill.

I lost count of the number of gambits (technically, amendments) opponents deployed in efforts to delay or weaken.  Along the way, there was at least one 5-4 vote. That’s how close it really was, not 8-1. Eventually, opponents succeeded in delaying $11.50 until Oct. 2017. (That’s four years in the future.)

In the official, final vote, Council member Phil Andrews was the diehard holdout. It may or may not be pertinent that Andrews is challenging County Executive Isiah Leggett in the June 2014 Democratic primary.

(Instant analysis: With one vote, Andrews won conservatives and minimum-wage haters for the coming election battle. That’s if there are any conservatives in Montgomery County, some might say.  Yes, Virginia, conservatives really do exist in Montgomery, and they are not generous like Santa Claus. Many conservatives vote in the Democratic primary, registering as Democrats for that very purpose. However, it may safely be predicted that NOT ENOUGH conservatives live in MoCo to prevail in a Democratic primary. At least, I hope not.)

The next day, Wednesday, the Prince George’s Council, with all nine members as cosponsors, passed a similar bill.

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, the D.C. Council completed the hat trick, unanimously.

The federal system shows signs of entropy. As a result, Maryland and other states have an opportunity to assert more power. Regions capable of political cohesion, such as Montgomery, Prince George’s and D.C., can assume more local control.

The rare success at regional solidarity is not yet a done deal. The D.C. mayor and executives of the two counties could theoretically veto the bill. But the P.G. and D.C. Councils apparently have enough votes to override a veto. And Montgomery’s Leggett is unlikely to veto.

All this is not unprecedented, but it is unusual. A number of regional efforts have stood the test of time in the D.C. area. Local minimum wage bills have passed in a few places, most notably San Francisco. Maybe Montgomery will become the San Francisco of the East.

The takeaway: The regional minimum wage pact is a big deal, maybe. The federal system shows troubling signs of entropy. States like Maryland have an opportunity to grab more power. But if states are unable to pass minimum-wage laws and fund programs such as education, authority might devolve downward to cities and counties. Enter the modern city-state. Local pols will be alert for any regional arrangement that works, including pacts that cross state lines.

— John Hayden

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6 Comments

Filed under Democracy, Economy, Maryland

6 responses to “Montgomery County Council Minimum Wage Power Play (With Comments)

  1. I graduated high school in Montgomery County. I remember the little old lady Food Lion cashiers making about $30 an hour in the late 70’s. Food Loin was union. I don’t think cashiers should make that much money, the consumers have to pay, and a cashiers job is an entry level job. These cashiers get the job and never leave, never grow, never self-improve and keep getting raisies. Meanwhile, kids cannot enter the workforce.

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    • I graduated HS in MoCo too, and like you, I remember the days when the grocery store unions were strong, and bar codes and scanners had not been invented. Fast-forward to today, and the grocery stores are using automation to replace most of the cashiers. Unemployment! The unions are weak, the grocery chains are owned by international corporations with no local accountability. And most of the grocery jobs are part-time to avoid paying health insurance and other benefits.

      In this case, Mark, I think the old ways really were better. And I have to disagree with you on the $30 an hour. That’s an exaggeration. I think UAW workers made about $24 an hour in those days. The MoCo grocery stores paid a living wage, thanks to unions, but it was more like $15 to $19 an hour, with the top rate reached after some years on the job. The cashiers were not all “little old ladies,” then or now. Many of the cashiers were and are parents supporting children.

      And those weren’t “entry-level jobs,” although they may be considered that now. Ringing up groceries with speed and accuracy required a modicum of skill, excellent eyesight, manual dexterity, and customer service. Not everyone could do it. It was and is a HARD job, requiring standing in one place for hours, carpal-tunnel injururies, constant lifting of heavy objects, and pain. Most people who do the job for a few years develop foot problems. Back strains from lifting and bending to bag groceries were common. I remember one woman who strained her stomach so badly lifting a 20-pound turkey that she was doubled over for the rest of the day.

      These were decent-paying jobs that high-school graduates persevered at, often for most of their working lives. And customers received far superior service.

      Finally, even little old ladies have rights. Who says they’re not entitled to earn a living wage. The grocery cashiers were never going to get rich, but with hard work and long hours, they could afford to support families.

      Even when the minimum wage finally hits $11.50 in 2017, it will not be enough to support one parent with one child. Minimum wage workers will still be the working poor. And most will be denied full-time jobs. They’ll work two or three part-time gigs, often commuting by bus. That’s if they’re lucky and can get jobs at all.

      We won’t be able to fixi the wage and job crunch that’s coming. There will be a few winners and many losers. But we can work to achieve a degree of fairness, however short it may fall.

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      • “There are no unskilled jobs” — Barbara Ehrenreich.

        Why is someone who checks your purchases in a grocery store not entitled to, at the least, the halfth of what my dimwit gardener charges per hour to do a half-assed job of edging the lawn and trimming the shrubbery?

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      • Answer: Anyone and everyone who does work for anybody deserves to be paid a living wage, or more.

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  2. schmale50

    Thanks John for the update on increasing the minimum wage. Why do so many Americans disparage blue collar working people who keep daily life functioning for everybody? The compromise won’t make anybody rich but will help workers make modest ends meet.

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    • “Why do so many Americans disparage blue collar working people?” Excellent point. Status and class are at play. People who believe they are of a higher status or class than others believe that they should earn more, or that the others should earn less. Level of education is also cited, far beyond the effect education has on the work accomplished.

      “Investment!” If someone has gone into debt to get an excellent education qualifying them to be, say, a medical doctor or an engineer, it does seem fair that they earn enough of a premium to pay back their loans. But many, many “blue collar” jobs also require costly training, in this technological age.

      In our society, “investment” in property and equipment necessary for production separates the capitalist or investor class from the worker class. I don’t know what to do about that, because capitalism definitely seems to work far better than communism. However, many would argue that some blend of capitalism and socialism might prove to be even more efficient and more fair.

      Clearly, the premium paid to upper management, like CEOs and CFOs, and the premium paid to investors, has become excessive, in relation to the compensation received by average workers, whether white collar or blue collar.

      Like

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