A campaign to help all low-wage earners

Wage stagnation; income inequality; the one percent. We know the story and most of us live it.

This fall a campaign is unfolding to give some justice to some one million Low-paid workers in Massachusetts. Concerned citizens holding petitions to qualify two referenda for the 2014 ballot are collecting signatures for increasing the minimum wage and enabling all working people to have five paid sick days.

Think about the low-wage workers you encounter during an average day, starting with Dunkin’ Donuts employees and then those at fast-food businesses, and in retail stores like Marshall’s, TJMax, Walmart. They are the security guards, the supermarket cashiers and baggers, the sales clerks, the greeters, the maintenance staff, et al.

We need the signatures of 100,000 registered voters on each of these petitions. So far, we’ve gotten over 70,000 toward the 200,000 needed with Nov. 20 as the deadline for collecting them.

The minimum-wage referendum has three parts: To raise the minimum wage in two increments over two years from $8 an hour to $10.50; to index it to to inflation so it doesn’t lose its value; and to raise the salaries of tipped workers from $2.30 an hour to 60 percent of the minimum wage plus tips.

If as community groups and unions had requested, an index to inflation had been in place in 2008 when the wage was raised to $8, it would be $8.62 today. That 62 cents is $1,200 a year a low wage worker is not getting.

The Earned Sick Time referendum would allow all people to earn up to five sick days to take care of themselves, their children, and /or their elderly parents. For businesses of ten or fewer employees, the five sick days are unpaid while for businesses of eleven or more people, they are paid sick days.

Linda Mae Pittsley is a retired, lifelong low-wage earner. She lost her home when she had to give up her second job due to illness. On June 11, she testified at the hearing on minimum wage at the State House in front of 800 supporters. In her first time speaking at the State House, she said, “Let me tell you what it’s like to work hard your whole life and end up with nothing.”

Lacking any pension, she needs to visit food pantries and supper programs, but she is out there collecting signatures to raise the minimum wage and for earned sick time so we can write a different story for low-wage earners.

This campaign, and the coalition running it, is called Raise Up Massachusetts. It involves more than 100 community groups, labor unions, religious congregations, and social service agencies, including many in Dorchester and Mattapan. US Sen. Elizabeth Warren is listed as a sponsor of the minimum wage increase petition and US Sen. Edward Markey’s name is on the Earned Sick Time petition.

If you can collect signatures of, say, 15 voters, I can e-mail you the petition form papers. I can be reached at lewfinfer@gmail.com.

Why collect all these signatures? Why not just try to pass this as a bill in the Legislature? Because the last two times the minimum wage was raised, the Legislature refused to index it to inflation, refused to raise the wage of tipped employees who now are paid only $2.30 an hour, and did raise the wage it as much as needed. But if the signatures are collected this fall, the Legislature must pass the bill by May 6; if not, we can take it to the ballot next fall for a binding vote.

Last week, a priest whose church will be collecting signatures called me and asked if this was the right time to do this since some of his parishioners were very upset at the politicians for the government shut- down. I thought about that and then said three things: It’s always the right time to act when it’s a moral issue; this campaign is a state matter, so the federal mess can’t stop us; and when we gather these signatures to put these questions on the ballot, we are saying we want the people to decide and won’t be stopped by some politicians or big business interests.

Let’s work together to raise the minimum wage for those one million low-wage earners in our state and also enable them to have sick days.
Lew Finfer is a member of the steering committee of Raise Up Massachusetts, director of the Dorchester-based MA Communities Action Network, and a resident of Dorchester.