By Damon Williams
May 9, 2014
When Mayor Michael Nutter signed the Minimum Wage and Benefits Standard executive order, on Tuesday, that raised the minimum wage paid to city contractors to $12, it pleasantly caught two groups off guard: Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Philadelphia Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild (POWER).
The executive order puts the $12 minimum wage into effect on January 1, and also raises to $10.88 per hour first-tier subcontractor pay.
Representatives of both groups said they were pleased with Nutter’s decision, but both sought to ramp up their efforts in educating voters about question number one, which will appear on the May 20 ballot.
“Our immediate reaction was ‘it’s about time.’ It’s been two years, and the last person to say the 21st Century Living Wage law, which is already on the books, didn’t apply to airport workers was actually Mayor Nutter, so it was great to see him come out now and get on board with what other mayors all across the country are doing,” said 32BJ Pennsylvania Director and Vice President Gabe Morgan during a board meeting with The Tribune. “Our union represents service-sector workers throughout Philadelphia and the eastern seaboard, and in this city, we represent 10,000 predominantly African American service-sector workers who work in the service industries in most of the major buildings of any kind in Philadelphia, so we have some sense of what to actually takes to create good jobs and take low-wage jobs and move them into decent jobs.”
Long before Nutter signed the order, Local 32BJ and POWER fought for fair wages for airport workers, guards, fast food employees and for workers toiling in other, traditionally lower wage jobs.
POWER Executive Director Bishop Dwayne D. Royster also congratulated the mayor for signing the order, but noted the orders can be easily rescinded by the present administration or a future one. And, to avoid that from happening, voters need to vote yes on Ballot Question No. 1, which will ask Philadelphia voters if they favor raising the minimum wage.
“The mayor signed an executive order, which can be rescinded by the executive any time – either this mayor or the next mayor,” said Royster, who also thanked Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. for his assistance, including the introduction of several wage-related bills. “So when we talk about getting to May 20, we’re talking about trying to change the Philadelphia Charter so it’s permanent. It’s a lot of work to change the charter, so once it’s in the charter it’s in there. While we applaud what the mayor did after two and a half years of battling with him, we’ve pushed for two and a half years along with our allies and partners in this to see radical changes in terms of what happened. So the living wage executive order is great, but it can be changed on a whim, and we don’t want to see it changed on a whim.
“We want to see it permanently made into law, and we need on May 20 to make sure it gets made into a permanent law,” Royster continued, adding that POWER has embarked on a massive door-knocking campaign to educate voters about the ballot question. “We also believe it’s important that our political leaders and business leaders in the city get a very strong indication from Philadelphians of what the expectations are of Philadelphians with regard to wages. Some people have made it seem that people are happy only making $7.25 an hour or that its dignified work … I don’t know how it can be considered dignified work when we are oftentimes giving double subsidies to the businesses in our city because they get tax breaks, and then at the same time we have workers getting food stamps and medical assistance because workers are not provided that. That is not dignified. This is a moral and ethical issue.”
Odetha McKnight, a wheelchair attendant at the airport, said she makes less now than when she started at the airport seven years ago, thanks to the original company she worked for being bought out, and the new contractor hasn’t provided for health benefits, sick or vacation days.
Morgan said U.S. Airways was one of the largest transgressors, noting airlines penchant for subcontracting to vendors that obligate themselves to paying the lowest rate possible. A way of convincing businesses like U.S. Airways and others to embrace the living wage standard is through the vote, which makes May 20 that much more significant.
“You bring it to the voters and elected officials to decide, the people whose job it is to manage the city and balance the interests of everyone in the city for the benefit of the majority of people in the city. That’s why May 20 is so important,” Morgan said. “It really takes the decision and puts it in the hands of people who live in Philadelphia and let them decide what to do with their airport and their money.”
It “definitely makes a statement to political and business leaders,” Royster concurred. “Not only are the political leaders watching what happens on May 20, but members of the Chamber of Commerce will be watching what happens on May 20 as well. If you have a business in Philadelphia and people are watching, the citizens of Philadelphia are very clearly saying [with a yes vote] that ‘we want you to you to pay people decently.’”