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Greens Optimistic on Living Wage

by Dan Coleman


As concerned citizens across the country grapple with the effects of welfare "reform" and the ongoing assault on the poor and on working people, the call for a living wage has become prominent. On March 5, the Orange County Greens made a presentation on a living wage ordinance to the Orange County Commissioners and requested that such an ordinance be developed for Orange County. The Greens are optimistic that the County Commissioners will enact a living wage ordinance. Then, the Greens plan to take the proposal to the Chapel Hill and Carrboro boards.

A number of trends in the national and global economies contribute to the spread of recent living wage campaigns: the growing gap between rich and poor, the growth of a temporary workforce, mounting large scale lay-offs, declining real wages, the loss of union membership, the failure of the federal government's minimum wage to keep pace, and the loss of various governmental supports for the working poor.

A living wage is typically defined as the amount that will keep a family of four above the poverty line. The Department of Health and Human Services considers the poverty line to be $15600 which, divided by 2080 hours of annual work, gives a living wage of $7.50. Some communities have established a living wage comparable, in today's dollars, to the historic high of the minimum wage. That amount is $6.56. Some areas try to adjust the living wage amount with the consumer price index to reflect local conditions.

A living wage ordinance would seek to improve the conditions of lower paid workers by identifying the living wage and requiring businesses contracting with the County to pay at least that wage. It would exemplify the County's commitment to its principles of corporate citizenship. Living wage ordinances typically apply only to contracts over a certain threshold of value so as to not over-burden small contractors or the County staff.

Last year, Orange County adopted, as part of its Economic Development Strategic Plan, a "Statement of Corporate Citizenship" which states in part that good corporate citizens provide "wages and benefits adequate to the well-being and dignity of all workers." This provision provides a strong basis for enacting a living wage ordinance for the County. A wage "adequate to the well-being" of workers must be one that, at a minimum, keeps a full-time worker's family out of poverty. The current federal minimum wage falls far below the poverty line.

The Greens urged the Commissioners to direct the County Manager and the Economic Development Commission to determine the appropriate nature, scope, and wording of a living wage ordinance and to include the pros and cons of various living wage definitions for Orange County.

A number of voices supported the Greens presentation. Marti Pryor-Cook, Director of Orange County's Department of Social Services, gave a powerful statement, speaking directly in terms of the difficulties faced by the growing poor. She provided first hand reporting on how the problems of the poor are growing in this era of federal stinginess. Carrboro Alderman and Economic Development Commission member Alex Zaffron described how the living wage ordinance fit in with the county's economic development strategy.

A report from staff is expected to reach the Commissioners some time in May. The Greens expect that there are many organizations in Orange County that will want to appear before the Commissioners to testify as to the importance of the living wage ordinance at that time.

  To get involved, contact Dan Coleman at 967-4690.  

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