By TIM ROWDEN
St. Louis’s low-wage workers are not giving up their higher minimum wage without a fight, despite the Missouri legislature’s passage of a bill, and Gov. Eric Greitens’ cowardly decision to allow it to become law, nullifying the higher wage in the city and blocking a similar increase in Kansas City.
The “Save the Raise” campaign, a coalition of groups including Show Me $15, Missouri Jobs with Justice, faith leaders and others, launched an effort July 14 to encourage and pressure businesses to honor the city’s higher $10 wage, even if state law precludes it.
In addition to public forums and media outreach, organizers are launching a petition drive to encourage employers to continue paying workers the higher wage.
Businesses that agree to do so will be lauded on the campaign’s website, savetheraise.org, and will be able to display signs showing their support.
For businesses that choose to roll back the wages, organizers vow to protest.
Workers and their supporters held a rally July 14 in front of the Southwest Diner, a popular St. Louis restaurant whose owner Jonathan Jones said he planned to continue paying his employees the higher wage.
“Even if Governor Greitens allows this cruel and unjust law to roll back wages for thousands of St. Louis workers, I’m going to keep the increase in place,” Jones said “It’s the right thing to do for my employees and the smart decision for my business. Businesses that pay their workers a decent wage have lower turnover and improved morale. And the more businesses that take the pledge, the stronger our economy will be because workers have more money to spend locally.”
Pat White, president of the St. Louis Labor Council, attended the rally to let the low-wage workers know that Organized Labor supports their efforts.
“When the city passed this, all the businesses that were against it said ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’” White said. “Well, the sky hasn’t fallen and I think if you look at cities like Seattle that have passed a higher wage, the workers turn right around and spend that money in the community. So it’s good for business and good for the economy.”
‘DO THE RIGHT THING’
“The minimum wage went up because workers hit the streets and went on strike for $15 an hour and union rights, and we won’t go backwards,” said Bettie Douglas, a local Fight for $15 leader and McDonald’s fast-food worker who was paid just $7.90 before the St. Louis ordinance went into effect.
“This raise is helping us put food on the table, gas in our cars, and keep the lights on. Now companies like McDonald’s have a choice to make,” Douglas said. “They can either snatch back our raise and take food out of the mouths of children, or they can do the right thing by honoring the St. Louis wage increase and paying us at least $10 an hour.”
‘FACING HARD CHOICES AGAIN’
Andy Karandzieff, owner of Crown Candy Kitchen, had been an outspoken opponent of the city ordinance that raised the wage he had to pay his two minimum wage employees, who are in high school. However, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he would not lower their pay after the ordinance is repealed. Karandzieff said he was uncertain if he’d pay new employees $10 per hour.
Maryland Heights-based Schnucks Markets, on the other hand, said they planned to lower the wage for employees at the company’s eight stores in St. Louis City.
“When I got a pay increase thanks to the higher minimum wage, I was able to start saving a little money every week and I didn’t have to make hard choices like deciding which bills to pay,” said Dennis Shaw, a United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 655 member who had been making $8.30 an hour working at Schnucks Culinaria before the higher wage took effect. “I’m going to be facing those hard choices again when the wage goes back down,” Shaw said, “and I’m appalled that the governor would let that happen to me.”
LOWER WAGES COST TAXPAYERS
“Right now, Missouri taxpayers shell out $2.4 billion per year in public assistance to make up for the fact that big companies like McDonald’s and Walmart don’t pay their workers enough to survive,” said State Senator Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis), citing a report from the University of California at Berkeley.
“Gov. Greitens and Republican legislators in Jefferson City may be content to let taxpayers subsidize poverty pay for big business, but St. Louis is choosing a different path. One way or another, we are going to save this raise.”
State Representative Joshua Peters (D-St. Louis), who also serves as a community outreach director for the Labor Council, put it this way:
“The Governor is in Jefferson City making six figures off of taxpayer dollars, and yet he doesn’t’ think workers in the city of St. Louis should have a graduated increase to their wage. That’s ridiculous.”
ST. LOUIS ORDINANCE
The St. Louis minimum wage ordinance was enacted in 2015, but was blocked from implementation for nearly two years by lawsuits from business lobbyists.
Just weeks after workers received their raises, Republicans in the Missouri Legislature passed a bill to bar local governments from raising the minimum wage and roll the $10 an hour increase in St. Louis back to the statewide floor of $7.70 an hour effective Aug. 28.
On June 30, Gov. Greitens announced he would not veto the bill before a July 16 deadline, effectively allowing the bill to become law. Notably, Greitens also refused to sign the law – allowing it to take effect without his signature. (See related stories on page 1.)
“Having my raise to $10 an hour ripped away by state lawmakers and our governor is heartbreaking, but low wage workers don’t have time to sit around and sulk,” said Alexis Straughter, a Certified Nursing Assistant at a St. Louis nursing home. “It’s up to us to pressure our employers to do the right thing and maintain the St. Louis minimum wage increase. This is about a better future for me and my two daughters and that is worth fighting for.”
“Lowering the minimum wage is a slap in the face for St. Louis working families,” said Cynthia Sanders, a janitor who works at the Wells Fargo building and is a member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1. “Missouri Republicans are taking food out of the mouths of my grandchildren.”
WHO EARNS MINIMUM?
New findings from the Economic Policy Institute dispel arguments that low-wage sector industries are filled predominantly by a young, temporary workforce. Of the 12 percent of the workforce that stands to lose pay, 92 percent are over 20, and 30 percent are older than 40.
FAITH LEADERS TAKING UP THE CAUSE
Area faith leaders are rallying around the campaign and pledged to spread the word to their congregants. Among the many clergy supporters are Rev. Traci Blackmon, Pastor Teacher of Christ the King United Church of Christ, Rev. Teresa Danieley, a priest in the Diocese of Missouri; Rev. Dr. Martin Rafanan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Rev. Starsky D. Wilson of St. John’s United Church of Christ.
“This is a defining moment for St. Louis employers and our community as a whole,” said Rev. Wilson. “We must choose the path of compassion and justice and reject the view of politicians in Jefferson City who want to make it harder for working people to feed their families. Over the coming weeks faith leaders across the city are going to carry a simple message to their congregants: we must save this raise.”