Welcome to ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center website. What you will find here is a brief history of the national living wage movement, background materials such as ordinance summaries and comparisons, drafting tips, research summaries, talking points, and links to other living wage-related sites. (Please also visit www.raisewages.org for the latest on minimum wage ballot initiatives across the country).
Visitors to the web site should keep in mind that there is no magic formula for a successful living wage campaign. Every campaign is different -- dependent on the campaign leaders and their constituencies, local politics and power dynamics, the campaign coalition's interests and scope, resources, experience, timelines, local and regional economies, etc.
Clearly, there is much to learn about running a living wage campaign that cannot be contained in a web site. However, as the movement chalks up wins, and leaders and organizers gain experience and become more savvy, we are building a body of material and experience that should be shared among living wage organizers everywher
ACORN and Living Wage
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, is the nation's oldest and largest grassroots organization of low and moderate income people with over 200,000 members in over 90 cities. For 35 years, ACORN members have been organizing in their neighborhoods across the country around local issues such as affordable housing, safety, education, improved city services, and have taken the lead nationally on issues of affordable housing, tenant organizing, fighting banking and insurance discrimination, organizing workfare workers, and winning jobs and living wages.
Over the last decade, ACORN chapters have been involved in over fifteen living wage campaigns in our own cities, leading coalitions that have won living wage or minimum wage ordinances in St. Louis, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Boston, Oakland, Denver, Chicago, Cook County, New Orleans, Detroit, New York City, Long Island, Sacramento and San Francisco.
In addition, we have led coalitions to win statewide minimum wage increases in five states - including the huge 71% ballot victory in Florida in November 2004 - which delivered a raise to an estimated 850,000 workers. ACORN is following up that exciting victory by promoting a National Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage through states and cities. This campaign includes cutting edge efforts to win citywide minimum wage increases - as well as ambitious statewide minimum wage ballot initiatives in the battleground states of OH, MO, AZ and CO for November 2006.
In 1998, ACORN established the Living Wage Resource Center to track the living wage movement and provide materials and strategies to living wage organizers all over the country.
ACORN has hosted three National Living Wage Training Conferences, drawing organizers from scores of different living wage campaigns across the country to learn from each other about elements of a living wage campaign such as building local coalitions, doing research, working with city council, developing message and responding to the opposition, preparing for living wage implementation fights, and using living wage campaigns to build community and labor membership and power.
We encourage campaign organizers to contact Jen Kern at ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center at 202-547-2500 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more materials, to discuss specific campaign strategy, and to get referrals to experienced living wage organizers who have been or are currently involved in living wage and minimum wage campaigns in cities and states all over the country.
NOW AVAILABLE: LWC GUIDE
The 2003 updated version of the comprehensive 225-page guide for organizing living wage campaigns: Living Wage Campaigns: An Activist's Guide to Building the Movement for Economic Justice (by David Reynolds of Wayne State University Labor Studies Center with the ACORN Living Wage Resource Center). This nitty gritty guide includes profiles of successful campaigns, chapters on how to build a coalition, conduct research, respond to the opposition, draft an ordinance, plan a larger electoral strategy, a review of the available research on the impact of living wage laws, an appendix of helpful living wage resources and much more.
To order the guide, send a check or money order for $15 (payable to ACORN) to Denise Johnson at ACORN: 739 8th St. SE; Washington, DC 20003. Substantial portions of this guide are available online in PDF format at www.laborstudies.wayne.edu.
Building Power in our Workplaces and Neighborhoods
In 1994, an effective alliance between labor (led by AFSCME) and religious leaders (BUILD) in Baltimore launched a successful campaign for a local law requiring city service contractors to pay a living wage. Since then, strong community, labor, and religious coalitions have fought for and won similar ordinances in cities such as St. Louis, Boston, Los Angeles, Tucson, San Jose, Portland, Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Oakland -- bringing the national living wage total to 122 ordinances. Today, more than 75 living wage campaigns are underway in cities, counties, states, and college campuses across the country. Taken collectively, these impressive instances of local grassroots organizing is now rightfully dubbed the national living wage movement, which syndicated columnist Robert Kuttner has described as "the most interesting (and underreported) grassroots enterprise to emerge since the civil rights movement … signaling a resurgence of local activism around pocketbook issues."
In short, living wage campaigns seek to pass local ordinances requiring private businesses that benefit from public money to pay their workers a living wage. Commonly, the ordinances cover employers who hold large city or county service contracts or receive substantial financial assistance from the city in the form of grants, loans, bond financing, tax abatements, or other economic development subsidies.
The concept behind any living wage campaign is simple: Our limited public dollars should not be subsidizing poverty-wage work. When subsidized employers are allowed to pay their workers less than a living wage, tax payers end up footing a double bill: the initial subsidy and then the food stamps, emergency medical, housing and other social services low wage workers may require to support themselves and their families even minimally. Public dollars should be leveraged for the public good -- reserved for those private sector employers who demonstrate a commitment to providing decent, family-supporting jobs in our local communities.
Many campaigns have defined the living wage as equivalent to the poverty line for a family of four, (currently $9.06 an hour), though ordinances that have passed range from $6.25 to $13.00 an hour, with some newer campaigns pushing for even higher wages.
Increasingly, living wage coalitions are proposing other community standards in addition to a wage requirement, such as health benefits, vacation days, community hiring goals, public disclosure, community advisory boards, environmental standards, and language that supports union organizing.
Although each campaign is different, most share some common elements. Often spearheaded by ACORN, other community groups, union locals, or central labor councils, living wage campaigns are characterized by uniquely broad coalitions of local community, union, and religious leaders who come together to develop living wage principles, organize endorsements, draft ordinance language, and plan campaign strategy. The campaigns usually call for some degree of research into work and poverty in the area, research on city contracts, subsidies and related wage data, and often cost of living studies.
In addition, the strength of living wage efforts often lies in their ability to promote public education through flyering, petitioning, rallies, demonstrations targeting low wage employers, low-wage worker speak-outs, reports, and press conferences. Because most current living wage campaigns seek to pass legislative measures, campaigns also include lobbying and negotiations with elected officials such as city and county councilors, the mayor's office, and city staff.
Living Wage campaigns also provide opportunities for organizations that work to build a mass base of low income or working people to join-up, organize, and mobilize new members. Community organizers and labor unions can look to build membership during the campaign with neighborhood door-knocking, worksite organizing, house visits, neighborhood and workplace meetings, petition signature gathering, etc. and after the campaign on workplace and neighborhood living wage trainings, implementation fights with city agencies, and through campaigns targeting specific companies to meet or exceed living wage requirements.
So, what makes a collection of local policy decisions merit the title of a national "movement"? In short, both the economic context that gives rise to these efforts and the nature of the campaigns themselves make them important tools in the larger struggle for economic justice.
First, consider the economic realities facing low income people today: the failure of the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation (it now buys less than it did in the 1960's); the growing income gap between the rich and the poor; massive cuts in welfare and downward pressure on wages resulting from former recipients being forced into the labor market with no promise of jobs; the growth of service sector jobs where low wages are concentrated; the weakening of labor unions; rampant no-strings-attached corporate welfare that depletes tax dollars while keeping workers poor. The list goes on. Living wage campaigns have arisen in response to all these pressures.
Given this context, living wage campaigns have the potential to have benefits that go beyond the immediate benefits to affected low wage workers and their families. Wherever they arise, living wage campaigns have the potential to:
o Build and sustain permanent and powerful community, labor, and religious coalitions that promote greater understanding and support of each other's work and create the potential to influence other important public policy debates
o Provide organizing opportunities that strengthen the institutions that represent and build power for low and moderate income people: community groups, labor unions, religious congregations
o Serve as a tool of political accountability, forcing our elected officials to take a stand on working people's issues, as well as engaging low and moderate income people in the political process
o Build leadership skills among low-income members of community organizations, unions, and congregations
o Raise the whole range of economic justice issues that gave rise to the living wage movement and affect the ability of low income families to live and work with dignity and respect
Despite the concerted efforts of business interests who consistently oppose these campaigns, "living wage" has become a household word and an exciting model of a successful local grassroots strategy. With new campaigns springing up every month, this movement shows no signs of slowing down.
We encourage you to join in the fight.