The Bottom Line

A group launches an initiative-petition drive to raise Arizona's minimum wage

Charlotte Peper brings personal experience to her efforts to raise Arizona's minimum wage. She's the co-chairwoman of the state chapter of ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and she knows what it's like to be poor.

In 1985, her husband couldn't work because of an accident. Peper became the sole breadwinner for four children and her spouse--on $4.15 an hour.

"We had our trailer repossessed, and we were living in the back of a pickup truck," she said. "Have we been poor? Yes. Have we been hungry? Very."

Although turnout at ACORN's kickoff of a petition drive to raise Arizona's minimum wage was humble at best, organizers like Peper said they're determined to improve the lot of low-income workers.

No more than 10 people attended the Dec. 8 meeting on efforts to increase the hourly wage floor from $5.15 to $6.75. That number included five speakers and staff members already associated with the Tucson chapter of ACORN, which bills itself as a "community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities."

"Since 1997, how much have prices gone up?" ACORN political organizer Kristi Taylor asked at the meeting, noting the year of the last federal minimum-wage increase. "How much more expensive has it become to live, yet the minimum wage is the same? The bottom line is $5.15 is not enough to live on."

UA women's studies professor Marsha Waggoner said "concern about the rights of workers to make a decent wage, to make enough to live" prompted her to come to the meeting, adding that the plight of low-income workers is "ridiculous."

ACORN is part of the Arizona Minimum Wage Coalition, which has brought together unions, community groups and a smattering of small businesses, said coalition chairwoman Rebekah Friend. After years of trying to prod politicians to raise the wage floor, Friend said advocates decided to appeal directly to Arizona voters through a ballot initiative they filed with the secretary of state on Nov. 18.

"We have been supportive of bills for several years in a row, and the (Arizona) Legislature has not been responsive. We've been unable to even get a hearing, so we've decided to take it to the people," said Friend, who is also president of the state AFL-CIO. "And nothing's been done at the federal level, either.

"The coalition believes that all working Arizonans deserve to be paid a minimum wage that's sufficient to support their families," she said. "You've got 145,000 (people) right now--half of them are women--and they're living on less than $11,000 a year. We also believe that raising the minimum wage reduces dependence on taxpayer-funded public services."

Another group, Five Fifteen Isn't Working, filed a similar initiative at the beginning of 2005. Its chairman, Tucsonan Bob Schwartz, said he was folding up his operation and lending support to the new coalition. He added that Five Fifteen Isn't Working hadn't gathered any signatures.

Friend said she wasn't sure how many signatures the coalition has collected thus far; they have until July 6 of next year to accumulate 122,612 valid signatures. Both volunteers and paid workers will be used to gather them. Friend said she won't know what the coalition's budget will be until they size up their opposition.

The initiative specifies that employers pay workers no less than $6.75 starting Jan. 1, 2007. It also mandates that the minimum wage be annually adjusted for inflation, based on the percentage increase in the U.S. Department of Labor's consumer price index over a one-year span.

Businesses with yearly gross revenue less than $500,000 would be exempt from these requirements. Their employees would keep the federal government's minimum wage, Friend said.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Arizona is one of six states without minimum-wage laws separate from the federal government, which set a floor of $5.15 eight years ago. Washington has the highest floor, at $7.35.

Both supporters and detractors of raising the minimum wage have evidence to support their claims. The disagreement between the two camps boils down to the priorities: establishing wages on which people can live, or maintaining a robust economy.

Opposition groups and many economists say raising the minimum wage could hurt small businesses, prompt layoffs and fuel inflation.

In many European countries, where wages and labor costs are much higher than in the United States, employers in the service industry tend to avoid hiring and invest in machinery that saves money on personnel. That can make it difficult for young workers and women to enter the labor market, said Paulette Kurzer, a UA political science professor.

Many business interests echo that sentiment domestically. John Dougherty, director of governmental affairs for the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, challenged the evidence brought up by those favoring a minimum-wage increase. He said it was "a myth" that the minimum wage is primarily earned by working families.

"The economic impact would be severe, particularly toward smaller businesses in Tucson," Dougherty said. "It just comes down to the cost of labor. When small businesses look to trim costs, the first thing they look at is labor. It would lead to job loss and higher unemployment, and right now is not the time to be raising the minimum wage with the labor market so tight."

Dougherty said the chamber is "anxious" to work with those pushing for a wage increase, but has yet to see a plan the chamber could support. He said he couldn't comment on the coalition's initiative, as he was unaware it contained language exempting businesses with gross revenue less than $500,000 a year.

ACORN members and staff, on the other hand, are quick to point out academic studies that show the benefits of a wage increase. Some have shown little to no economic harm from raising the minimum wage, while at least one has shown a positive effect.

But perhaps the biggest weapon on the coalition's side is the human dimension. Peper said she believes the raise would stop a demoralizing cycle for many people who want to live free of the welfare tether.

"Minimum-wage workers bring home less than they would--working full-time--if they were on welfare," Peper said. "Thinking back on my own situation, I was able to keep working until I was able to bring myself above the minimum wage. But there are people who don't have those resources. They don't have the background.

"It's close to being street people--it's very, very hard," she said. "I think the most difficult part is maintaining a sense of dignity, because as we learned, it's easier to get welfare and public assistance than to work for slave wages--or indentured-servant wages, shall we say? It's kind of a dead end."

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