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Judy and I wrote this one together.  It was published yesterday in the Concord Monitor.  We both testified at the public hearing, along with other advocates for low-wage workers.  The full force of the business lobby and the House Republicans were arrayed on the other side.  This is a good time to contact members of the House Labor Committee to support raising the minimum wage.

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, the minimum wage went up in 10 states. But not New Hampshire, where the minimum wage is stuck at the federal level and the state’s minimum wage was abolished by the Legislature two years ago. Without change at the state level, thousands of New Hampshire workers will have to wait for the gridlocked Congress to raise the federal minimum wage above the current rate, $7.25 an hour.

What does it mean to live on $7.25 an hour? If you work 40 hours a week every week of the year, your annual income will be $15,080. Enough to live on? Not by a long shot. You’ll earn $4,000 less than the poverty-level income for a family of three. And even the poverty income is less than you need to keep a roof over your head. At the minimum wage, you’d have to work 106 hours a week to afford a typical two-bedroom New Hampshire apartment, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Help could be on the way.

Two bills coming before the House Labor Committee today would re-establish the state’s authority to set a minimum wage and raise it above the federal level. Rep. Tim Robertson of Keene is sponsoring House Bill 241 to establish a New Hampshire minimum wage of $9.25. HB127, co-sponsored by Reps. Peter Sullivan of Manchester and Timothy Horrigan of Durham, would set the minimum wage at $8 per hour.

In 1949 New Hampshire established a state minimum wage, though it seldom rose above the federal rate. But the state law was repealed in 2011. “There is no reason for New Hampshire to set ourselves higher than the national average and make ourselves less competitive for these workers who need to gain experience,” then-House Speaker Bill O’Brien said at the time.

No detectable employment losses

But would employers really hire fewer workers if the wage went up? Research suggests otherwise. Recent research by a team of economists from the Universities of California, Massachusetts and North Carolina “suggest no detectable employment losses from the kind of minimum wage increases we have seen in the United States.”

Why? Wouldn’t higher wages make it harder for businesses employing low-wage workers to earn a profit? Not necessarily. Raising wage rates tends to reduce employee turnover, reduce the costs of recruiting and training, and raise productivity. As Henry Ford discovered a century ago, increasing wages can be profitable.

Some opponents say it is mainly teens who earn minimum wage. Not true. Many of New Hampshire’s lowest-wage workers have families to support. Although we lack state-level statistics, we know that teens comprise only a quarter of minimum wage workers nationally.

Who will benefit from an increase? While most New Hampshire workers earn more than $8 an hour, plenty of workers would see their incomes rise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 14,000 New Hampshire workers earn $7.25 per hour or less.

Raising the wage also will help thousands of workers now earning above $7.25 per hour. For example, a worker who currently earns $7.75 per hour will get a raise if the minimum wage goes up to $8.

Even people with somewhat higher wages will benefit. This is because many employers intentionally keep their pay a certain margin above the minimum in order to compete for employees.

HB 127 has an important additional feature, a process to raise the minimum wage as the cost of living increases. This is critical. The federal minimum wage would be $10.58 per hour now if it had kept up with inflation over the past 40 years.

Two more minimum wage bills – one in the House and one in the Senate – will come up soon.

Raising the minimum wage will not eliminate poverty in New Hampshire. But it will make a concrete difference in the lives of thousands of people struggling to earn a living. Every New England state except New Hampshire has a minimum wage above the federal level. Our workers deserve better pay for their hard work.

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Bread and Roses

labor day 2012 09 03 014

Memorial Unveiled at Bread and Roses Festival

Labor history is about struggle, not just victories, says historian and labor activist Dexter Arnold.  But the victory of workers 100 years ago in Lawrence MA is still worth remembering and celebrating.

“In January, 1912, 20,000 workers, mainly Southern and Eastern European immigrants, nearly half of them women, walked out of the mills and walked intolabor day 2012 09 03 008 history in a strike that captured national attention, won important economic gains, and created a new pattern of labor activism in Lawrence,” Brother Arnold said this afternoon at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to what has become known as the “Bread and Roses Strike.”  Uniting across lines of language, gender, and ethnicity, workers won improved wages after going on strike when textile mill bosses cut their pay.

Memory of the 1912 strike animates the annual Bread and Roses Festival that draws thousands to a Lawrence park, just a few blocks from the mill buildings where workers wove wool fabric.  This year’s festival, in the centennial year of the historic strike, had special significance for the activists, historians, civic leaders, and artists who have kept the festival going.  And where else would you hear a high school girls choral group sing “God Bless America” and “The Internationale” in the same set? labor day 2012 09 03 028

“Outsiders marveled at what was happening on the streets of Lawrence,” Arnold said of the nine week strike that rocked Lawrence a hundred years ago. “They marveled at the cooperation among members of different ethnic groups, at the workers’ enthusiastic militancy and effective organization, at their determination and courage in the face of brutal repression.”

The walkout was not spontaneous, according to Arnold, but followed agitation by militant members of the Industrial Workers of the World.  In fact, one thousand Italian workers attended an IWW-organized meeting the night before the strike began and voted to strike if pay was cut.  The IWW sent in experienced organizers later, and the strikers received tremendous support from workers in other communities. 

“Solidarity was crucial but the strike was won on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Lawrence” Arnold said.

An injury to one is still an injury to all

The importance of community mobilization is just one of the lessons we can learn labor day 2012 09 03 049 from Lawrence.  Steve Thornton, a Connecticut labor activist who has been researching IWW history in that state, highlighted another: the importance of organizing immigrants and low-skilled workers.   The American Federation of Labor, the dominant labor organization of the early 20th century, focused on native born, skilled workers, ignoring most of the women and immigrants in the workforce.  Lacking the vote, they found their voices in the workplace through direct action, which Thornton called “an under-utilized tool in our toolbox.”

“People’s victories come first and foremost from people’s movements,” Thornton said, not from elections or legislation. 

Of course, if all you knew of the labor movement came from this morning’s Labor Day Breakfast in Manchester you might draw the opposite impression.  This is an election year, and nasty, anti-union politics have nearly prevailed in New Hampshire over the past two years.  And while Brother Thornton might be right that victories come from movements and direct action, big defeats can come at the ballot box.  Election of anti-labor candidates in November will pave the way for backwards motion that would need years of organizing to reverse.  So perhaps it was fitting that the breakfast felt a bit more like a political than a labor rally.  The stakes are high indeed.

 

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5-1-12 092

A crowd of about a hundred people combined pro-immigrant and pro-worker messages at a May Day rally outside the Dover, New Hampshire City Hall today.  Despite an on-again off-again drizzle, spirits stayed strong during speeches by immigrant and religious leaders, songs led by Rev. Mary Westfall, and music 5-1-12 008 performed by the Leftist Marching Band.

The rally was organized by the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, and emceed by its organizer, Eva Castillo.  Support also came from the American Friends Service Committee and Occupy Dover.

Speakers included Dr. Sara Alier, President 5-1-12 050of the South Sudanese Association; Suraj Budathoki, a member of the Bhutanese Community of NH; the Rev. Sandra Pontoh of the  Maranatha Indonesian UCC Church in Madbury; Attorney Larry Vogelman; Maggie Fogarty of the AFSC; State Rep. David Watters of Dover; and the Rev. Kendra Ford of the Exeter UU Church.

The connections between workers and immigrants were evident, for example in 5-1-12 078remarks of several speakers concerning a February incident in which reports of wage theft at a nearby construction site prompted community protests which helped the workers collect pay they were owed.  Lindsey Wettleland of Occupy Dover also noted that Dover was the site of the first industrial strike by women in the USA.  Judy Elliott, an ESOL teach and NH COSH safety trainer spoke about the common on-the-job injuries experienced by immigrant workers and the rights that all workers have to a safe workplace. 

Danny Provencal Fogarty, a Dover 8th grader, was probably the most effective speaker with his reading of the Emma Lazarus poem from the Statue 5-1-12 052of Liberty and impromptu remarks – in Spanish and English – about his own experience living in a Bolivian village and the importance of having a welcoming attitude to immigrants.  Danny has a future as a public speaker!

A small counter-protest by the Granite State Patriots, a tea party group led by a one-time head of the State Republican Party, drew only 5 people.  They complied with requests to be a non-disruptive presence and left halfway through the rally.

The rally featured spirited renditions of “This Land is Your Land,” “We Shall Not  Be Moved,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  “Solidarity Forever” was sung with choruses in Spanish and Indonesian as well as English. 

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Here’s my new verse for “This Land is Your Land”

“We are dissenters from the one per centers,

For human rights, we are defenders,

For social justice, we are extenders,

This land was made for you and me.”5-1-12 080

May 1 rallies for immigrants’ rights in recent years had been held in Manchester and Nashua.   The decision to hold this year’s rally in Dover followed a February incident in which Dover police called federal immigration authorities when a small group of immigrants showed up at the police station to report an incident of wage theft and request assistance.

Earlier in the day immigrants rights activists attended a State House hearing on a resolution of  support for Arizona’s repressive immigration law, known as SB 1070.  Not a single supporter, no5-1-12 001t even the resolution’s sponsor, showed up to speak for the non-binding expression of intolerance.  But opponents included Eva Castillo, Judy Elliott from NH AIR, Clair Ebel of the NH Civil Liberties Union, Cathy Chesley from Catholic Charities, Attorney Enrique Mesa, Louise Hannan of NH COSH, and me.  Following the hearing, the Senate Internal Affairs Committee voted 2-1 to recommend killing the resolution, which had already passed the NH House.  

Here’s more photos:

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NH House 5-25-11 012

“Work Without Rights” Loses a Battle

New Hampshire’s Speaker of the House, William O’Brien, adjourned today’s session without a vote on the controversial Right-to-Work-for-Less bill because he lacked the two-thirds majority needed to over-ride Governor Lynch’s veto. NH House 5-25-11 017

Today’s victory is testimony to the hard work done by unions and pro-labor groups to communicate with Representatives, including Republicans who have voted against the bill. 

The Speaker had spent recent weeks using his special powers of persuasion to cajole recalcitrant Republicans to vote with him or “take a walk” and abstain from voting.  He will no doubt keep trying, but in the process he may try the patience of even his supporters, many of whom would like to move on to other issues and are tired of getting phone calls about right-to-NH House 5-25-11 024work. 

Mark MacKenzie, president of the NH AFL-CIO, spoke before a crowd of sign-waving activists outside the Speaker’s office after O’Brien held another private news conference.

By the way, this blogger was kept out of the news conference by a member of O’Brien’s staff.  One irony is that his rhetoric has often lifted up New Hampshire’s sovereignty and the primacy of the State’s Constitution.  In that document, Article 22 says:

Free speech and liberty of the press are essential to the security of freedom in a state: They ought, therefore, to be inviolably preserved.

Prior the the legislative session, a couple dozen RTW supporters waved signs on the State House Plaza.  They were greatly outnumbered by pro-labor activists from numerous unions supplemented by Protect NH Families, NH Citizens Alliance, Working Families Win, and several faith-based groups.  Lunch was served from a giant Teamsters truck, parked outside the State House. 

NH House 5-25-11 005  NH House 5-25-11 006

Last week the Speaker suffered a political defeat when Democrat Jennifer DaleNH House 5-25-11 001r won a special election for a House seat in his own district.  The outcome coincides with yesterday’s victory by Kathy Hochul in a NY State Congressional election.  Is it possible that the wave of reactionary Tea Party politics has crested?

Regardless, New Hampshire labor activists can’t afford to rest.  Right-to-Work (which could be re-titled “Work Without Rights”) is not yet dead.  The Speaker controls the House agenda, and can put off an over-ride vote until the end of the year if he chooses.

Senators have removed proposals to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights from the fine print of budget and pension bills.  But House and Senate negotiators have agreed to set up a “study committee” on public employee collective bargaining.  Members of the study committee will be appointed by legislative leaders, whose views of workers’ human rights range from moderately hostile to extremely hostile. 

So it may be a long summer.   And a long time to the next election. 

NH House 5-25-11 021

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Mark MacKenzie, President of the NH AFL-CIO, listens to Nigel Costley at lunchtime talk.

HOOKSETT, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Union activists took a break from envelope–stuffing today to hear from Nigel Costley, a visiting representative of the British Trades Union Congress, the UK’s major labor federation. A labor activist since being elected an official of the printers’ union at age 24, Costley told the activists about the TUC’s opposition to massive budget cuts proposed by the Conservative government.

Last week the British government announced it would slash spending by $130 Billion through cuts in welfare benefits, raising the retirement age, and laying off hundreds of thousands of public sector workers.

Just like in the USA, conservative British politicians are trying to blame the ongoing economic crisis on the public sector rather than on the policies which caused the crisis in the first place, according to Costley. Now, he said, “we’re in real danger around the world” that governments could repeat the kinds of policies which got us into the Great Depression 80 years ago. A trend toward fiscal austerity and privatization will deepen the economic crisis, not cure it, he said.

According to the TUC, the cuts will fall especially hard on poor people who depend on government services. The federation is already planning demonstrations for next March.

Costley also described efforts to reach out to young workers, including through sponsorship of an annual music festival that honors the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of agricultural workers who were tried and “transported” to Australia for the ‘crime’ of trying to form a union in 1834. Unions need to forge closer alliances outside the labor movement, he said. “We’ve got to reach out to community groups, to environmentalists.”

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