Fighting for a Living Wage

Against the Current, No. 115, March/April 2005

Sonya Huber

Fighting For a Living Wage
by Stephanie Luce
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. 221 pages,
$18.95 paper.

THINK BACK TO the last time you read a book filled with charts and tables and detailed data analysis that also made you want to run into the street, screaming “Wait! You’ve got to read this!” — in short, an academic book that also gave you renewed energy to organize.

Still thinking? You can stop.

Stephanie Luce’s Fighting for a Living Wage examines the outcomes of several struggles for living wage ordinances. Her first goal is to make the point, which many of us have learned the hard way, that winning an ordinance is only the beginning of the struggle.

Analyzing the data from many campaigns gives several insights that will be helpful, both for living wage organizers and for those seeking general tools and perspectives on organizing locally for legislated economic gains. Luce includes plenty of campaign details, on-the-ground strategies, and quotes from activists; all of these details make this a hybrid analysis and organizing manual.

The first few pages of the book provide condensed summaries of the history of economic policy in the United States, highly useful for any labor or economic justice activist. One is tempted to photocopy the three pages on municipal economic development as a handy “cheat sheet” about how and why it is that cities are in the fix they are in now.

Luce explains that cities adopted corporate business models and tried to substitute corporate funds for disappearing federal and state money. The attack on working people, she explains, is part of the larger picture of cities competing to offer corporate “incentives” to lure jobs to an area.

Luce tracks the historical development of the living wage movement, and explores the difficulty in defining a living wage. She examines the benefits of both “inside” and “outside” strategies for winning a living wage, and advocates a combined approach, which she acknowledges might be counterintuitive to the die-hard rabble rousers among us.

Based on the campaign data she examined, she says, she found that getting concrete data about an ordinance’s effects was critical, and that the most successful campaigns require an inside track, a way to get information and ongoing relationships with city staffers.

Coalitions With Attitude

Luce’s combined approach doesn’t mean that she is relegating activists to endless committee meetings. In fact, she comes up with several useful and surprising findings.

The most contentious campaigns, which faced the most initial resistance from the powers-that-be, ended up with some of the most success in enforcement, because the living wage coalitions were forced to build momentum and reach out to multiple constituencies.

Enforcement efforts, she explains, stumble for many reasons. Luce shows by theory as well as by example why city officials cannot be relied upon for enforcement of living wage legislation. She outlines the nature of local government work, the political leanings of city managers, and the dilemmas of retaliation and negative consequences.

The difficulty in getting information about compliance is overwhelming even for city employees, she points out. Even more  than in an initial ordinance campaign, a campaign for enforcement demands that the coalition have contact with the workers directly affected.

She provides many useful examples of ordinance language, and stresses the need for an ordinance to include specifics about who is responsible for enforcement as well as repercussions when the ordinance is not adhered to.

Allocating Our Resources
The only disheartening note in the book might be the clear indication that external monitoring is almost essential to enforcement. For local coalitions intent on getting a “win” out of a successful campaign, the prospect of such an open-ended task into a series of victories may be an intimidating path.

The larger question for the labor and economic justice movement is the allocation of resources toward campaigns at a time when it feels like we are fighting on so many fronts. This is a difficult — and separate — matter.

Making the decision about whether a long living wage fight will help build organizations and win power at a local level is obviously something that activists on the ground have to wrestle with. Luce argues that these long-term campaigns can be planned most appropriately if activists are aware of the milestones they will have to reach, and if the campaign is planned with the goal of enforcement in mind.

Enforcement itself doesn’t help to build organization unless planned carefully. Luce also attempts to deal with this issue by analyzing the indirect benefits from a living wage campaign. Increasingly, ordinances have included clauses that are intended to improve the climate for labor organizing, such as “labor peace” clauses.

Still other possible benefits include the hope that wage improvements will spread to other workers in the same company, or in an industry as a whole, as Luce documents in a few instances. She also provides helpful examples of unions (such as the NEA in Vermont) that have adapted the living wage “language” to reframe and strengthen their arguments with employers.

She finds some of the most important benefits for living wage work in the formation of coalitions between labor and other social and economic justice organizations.

Tools for Organizing

The larger hope for the living wage movement, of course, is to change the vocabulary with which we talk about class and working people. Luce posits this as a key reason for engaging in these campaigns, but stresses that the campaigns are “constructive tools for further organizing, not solutions in and of themselves.” (209)

She turns to theory about social change and the labor movement in her conclusion, explaining that the long-term change we need can happen by taking on the assumptions of a labor movement that has allowed itself to be defined as a mechanism for individual benefits rather than collective civil and human rights.

Fighting for a Living Wage has obviously been written with care. Luce does not dumb down a single concept; she includes her references and schools of thought on state theory and policy formation, but she clues the rest of us in on the conversation.

In the age of university presses wondering how to remain relevant and solvent, Luce offers an answer: publish books people can read with data people can use.

Luce also does not take the route of so many authors who study and write about organizing, which is to indulge in an easy shrug of bafflement when confronted with the data they’ve worked so hard to collect. She offers clear guidance relevant both for students of social change and for activists.

Chapter 4 deals with the makeup of a strong living wage campaign. Motivations for campaigns and goals affect outcomes. Examples of Providence and other cities where reaching new groups of workers resulted in other gains and activist campaigns and new organizing.

The title Fighting for a Living Wage is apt, because what Luce says is that the fight isn’t over once a law is on the books. A city can resist ideologically, or it can just offer waivers that water down the law. One excellent insight is that this holds true not only for Living Wage, but for any campaign that seeks to create a law. The question “Who implements?” is a much more expansive view of true “victory.” (93)

Success, Luce argues, is determined by your goals. You need to actually know what measures will indicate success and how to measure them (Chapter 5). She establishes a concise list of 14 points that can be used to rate the success of a campaign. (74)

The book is 218 pages, plus three helpful more pages of living wage resources. Get your own copy from Cornell University Press. Mine is already all underlined and dog-eared and photocopied and loaned to the local organizer who’s heading up our living wage campaign.

I wanted to memorize this. It’s poetry economics. Luce’s writing style is at once dense and extremely plain-spoken. This is a book on economics that wants you to understand economics! You might even look up from your chair at the coffeeshop and say, “I get it!” Hurrah for Luce, and please get to work on the next one.

ATC 115, March-April 2005