Guest Editorial: The End of the Eight Hour Day

by Barry Hermanson on February 27, 2006

On February 10th, the California Restaurant Association filed an initiative with the California Attorney General’s office. They want to raise the minimum wage to $7.75. This has to be a first, a business group filing an initiative to increase the minimum wage. How can an industry that has always bitterly opposed raising the minimum wage, introduce legislation to increase it? Answer: they see the writing on the wall. Industry leaders have recently been quoted as saying an increase is inevitable.

If an increase in the minimum wage is inevitable, how does the Restaurant industry get something out of the deal? In their legislation, they also propose increasing the work-day to 10 hours so they don’t have to pay overtime over 8 hours. In exchange for an increase in the minimum wage, the average worker will have to work longer hours and be paid less overtime. This initiative would benefit AND adversely impact the lives of millions of workers in California, many earning much more than minimum wage and yet there is no media coverage. Say hello to the 10-hour day. (I know that many of us are already working 10 hours or more per day. But, how many hours will we have to work when 10 is what’s expected?)

Raising the minimum wage is a very popular issue. According to a statewide poll by David Binder Research, 80 percent of Democrats support raising the minimum wage to $7.75 and then indexing it to inflation. 72 percent of Republican women and 50 percent of Republican men also support this increase. 72 percent of Republicans earning less than $50,000 per year support it. Democratic Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (author of AB 48 – minimum wage legislation) was recently quoted: “The governor may have a harder time vetoing minimum wage legislation again, if he knows a successful initiative campaign is on the way. If you start that high, there really isn’t a way to lose an initiative.” (Capitol Weekly – December 22, 2005)

The governor says he supports raising the minimum wage to $7.75 per hour, but he doesn’t want to see a cost of living adjustment (COLA) every year. The Democrats and the labor community want the COLA. The COLA is the prize. One needs only to look at the federal minimum wage to know why. The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour. Back in 1968, it was $1.60. If it had been indexed to inflation since 1968 (just to keep up with the increases in costs for goods and services), the federal minimum wage would be approximately $9 per hour today all across the country. In California, it is currently $6.75.

The California Budget Project estimates that a wage of $12.44 is required for a single worker to survive with just the basics – as an average in the entire state of California. That is a lot more than $6.75. It is also a lot more than $7.75. My question for the Democratic leadership in Sacramento: When you see someone in obvious pain, how loud do they have to scream before you take action on one of your core issues? What is the plan of the Democratic leadership in Sacramento to win a minimum wage increase with a COLA for 2 million low-wage workers in California?

Both the Democrats and the Republicans have legislation pending that would raise the minimum wage to $7.75. The Democrats and the labor community want a COLA. The governor and the Republicans do not. The Democrats have said that the issue is non-negotiable.

A ballot initiative is the only thing that will pressure the governor to sign Democratic legislation. If a popular initiative that includes a COLA were moving towards the November ballot when the governor is running for re-election, would he want to campaign against it or would he sign Democratic legislation? I think he’d sign Democratic legislation ($7.75 plus a COLA) to keep the identical initiative off the November ballot. Fortunately for him, he may never have to make such a difficult choice. The Democratic leadership in Sacramento is not supporting the signature drive to qualify an initiative ($7.75 plus a COLA) for the November ballot. Why? What is their plan to get Schwarzenegger to sign their legislation? Do they have a plan?

Signatures for the minimum wage initiative must be turned in by mid-April to qualify for the November ballot. Will the Democrats step forward and help to move their own agenda? Or, will they be forced to sign Republican legislation or worse, have to decide whether or not to oppose a California Restaurant Association ballot initiative increasing the minimum wage next year?

What would you decide? There is still time to qualify the ballot initiative. But time is running out. Please contact your State representatives and ask that they make it a priority to support a signature gathering campaign.

One final comment. In a very tight budget year, it has been estimated that if the minimum wage is increased, California taxpayers will save $2 BILLION per year because they will no longer be subsidizing low wage employers. When people don’t make enough to live, the state steps in and provides benefit programs – food, housing, health care. Democrats should be taking action. They are not. It isn’t a priority. When I was young; when I was a Democrat, it was a priority.

Barry Hermanson is running for the District 12 seat of the California State Assembly. He can be reached at barry@barryhermanson.org.

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