Shelby County Democrats
Shelby County Iowa
Shelby County Democratic Party Co-Chair
THE BAREST MINIMUM
I've told this story before, but not in these pages. So, if some of you have heard it, I apologize. The story is germane to the minimum wage discussion the nation is now having thanks to President Obama's focus on the minimum wage in his State of the Union address. In his speech, the President called upon Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9.00. Republicans, predictably, have said that such a move would hurt job growth. John Boehner through some convoluted and tortured reasoning, thinks it actually would hurt workers.
Back in the midst of time when I was not long out of college, I journeyed to California where I planned to become the next Steven Spielberg. Well, that didn't work out, but while I was out there I needed to pay the rent and buy groceries, so I found a job at a bookstore a short commute from where I was living.
The store was part of a regional chain known as Crown Books. The job title was 2nd Assistant Manager, which makes it sound more important than it was. The job paid a whopping $3.55 an hour. This was in 1983. The minimum wage at that time was $3.35. That was the wage the store paid its clerks.
Well, I enjoyed the job. It was hard work, but the people I worked with were some of the finest people I have ever known. Eventually, I became the manager of the store in 1985, but our wage structure remained stubbornly the same. Because this was a discount book chain, the owners kept costs down as much as they could. Unfortunately, one of the chief ways they did this was in the wages they paid the workers. I was powerless to alter the wage scale in any way.
As a manager, I quickly found out how difficult it was to attract and keep a good staff. $3.35 an hour in southern California in 1983 simply wasn't much money. As the manager of the store for five years, I had to hire people on a regular basis. Many times a good applicant would come in for an interview. I would want to make the hire, but when I had to tell them what the job paid, they frequently would shrug and stammer something like, "Okay. I was looking for something that paid a little more. Thanks." And they would leave. One guy even laughed in my face.
So, it was hard attracting good help willing to work for not much more than a pittance. They weren't all as gullible as the farm kid from Iowa who was trying to hire them! We were always a person or two short on staff it seemed.
I think it was in 1987 when there arose a discussion about raising the minimum wage in Washington. I remember it being a particularly busy day with lots of boxes to unpack and books to shelve--an almost daily occurrence at that store. I was up to my eyeballs in work and not feeling all that charitable to fools and idiots--and that's when a fool who was an idiot walked into the store. I was pricing stock in our bathroom-sized stockroom when I heard a knock on the door. "Yes?" I said.
The door opened. A guy in his 30s, dressed in a pressed white shirt and tie--looking every bit a Republican or a Scientology recruiting agent--peered in. "Are you the manager?" he asked.
"Yes," I answered as I slapped another price sticker on to a copy of The Tommyknockers, Stephen King's latest book.
He gave me his name and said that he was from the Chamber of Commerce. "I would like you to sign our petition that expresses our opposition to raising the minimum wage. We'll be sending it on to our congressman in Washington."
I sometimes had minimal patience in those days, brought on by a lack of sleep and 12-hour stints in the bookstore due to the staff shortages I mentioned above. "Why should I sign that?" I asked, digging in at the plate--pardon the baseball analogy--knowing full well what he was going to say.
"Well," he said, "everyone in business knows that raising the minimum wage is going to cost employers a tremendous amount of money and will ultimately force businesses to close or layoff workers."
It was a hanging breaking ball out over the middle of the plate, and I reverted to my farmer roots with regard to my response, uttering an expletive, one used to describe what comes out of the posterior end of a bovine of the male persuasion.
He looked at me aghast, as if I had said something sacrilegious instead of simply profane. "But you're the manager!" he said. "You know how much this is going to cost your company!"
"Do you have any idea how hard it is to attract and keep good employees at the current minimum wage?" I asked. "It's damn near impossible. This is a corporate chain, and as long as the minimum wage is kept low, the starting wage I can pay a new clerk is going to be low. If the minimum wage is raised, the starting wage I can offer a new clerk will be raised, and maybe I can fill my staff vacancies more easily and keep them longer."
He was shocked and flabbergasted. "Do your corporate bosses know this is how you think?" he asked, sputtering.
"Sure they know. I tell them all the time. All the store managers do. It's a big problem."
"You're lucky they don't fire you," he said with a smirk.
"It's even harder to find good managers, because they don't pay us much either. It's all based on the same, low minimum wage starting point." I had reached the end of my tether, and I had work to do. "So, no. I'm not signing your stupid petition. Now go away." I closed the storeroom door in his face and resumed pricing my stock. But that felt good! A year later the minimum wage was raised to $4.25 an hour, which really helped me to hire some good people.
Fast forward to today, and I'm still hearing the same things from the Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce. Raising the minimum wage will hurt businesses and force them to close or layoff workers. Nothing has changed. It wasn't true then in 1987, and it's not true now. Tight-fisted corporations don't want to part with any of their brass, but they are willing to donate some of that brass to their Republican shrills in the hope of keeping people from making a decent living. It's a damn disgrace, and loads of shame should be heaped upon the Republicans and their corporate overlords for perpetuating corporate servitude.