This year, the Alachua County Labor Coalition wants to make a livable wage the law.

livingwage

Illustration by Sidney Howard

Of the 319 million people living in the United States, 47 million live below the poverty line. And of those 47 million, 63,340 live in Alachua County.

To reduce this number, the Alachua County Labor Coalition — a local group of individuals, unions and worker-friendly organizations that works to defend the rights of working people — are combating an outdated minimum wage.

This year, the group launched a campaign to raise the county’s minimum wage from the current Florida standard of $8.05 to what is called a living wage: one that affords workers and their families the most basic cost of living without the need for government support or poverty programs.

To do this, the coalition plans to meet with the 10 largest employers in the county to discuss raising their minimum wages, as well as petitioning local businesses and religious organizations for support. The coalition hopes that once it has the community’s support, the Alachua County government will be open to passing a countywide ordinance that makes a living wage the law.

“So far we have not gotten a lot of resistance,” coalition secretary Sheila Payne said. “We’ve gotten businesses to sign on [to endorse the campaign], and we’ve met with a lot of smaller units, like the Young Entrepreneurs.”

Because the local government is the ninth largest employer in the county, Jeremiah Tattersall, union liaison for the coalition, said the ordinance will have a positive effect in the community by increasing consumer spending: The more money in people’s pockets, the more they will spend.  

“The ordinance would benefit a couple hundred workers in total, which isn’t a lot when you consider how large Alachua County is,” Tattersall said. “But in the end it adds to our vision for a more just economy.”

Congress created the minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, creating a minimum standard of living to protect the health and well-being of employees. But since the minimum wage increase in 2009, the price of apples has increased by 16 percent, coffee by 27 percent and milk by 21 percent. The minimum wage has not risen alongside inflation, and a paycheck now buys less. The current minimum wage fails to provide security, the very thing it was created to do.

But, according to Tattersall, the biggest argument for raising the minimum wage is not about numbers — it’s about morality.

“That’s why so many churches and synagogues and mosques have signed on this,” he said. “Because all work is supposed to be dignified, whether you’re serving coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or you’re a paramedic. And when you pay someone $8.05 an hour … it’s very insulting to their dignity.”

So far 35 organizations, including the Gainesville chapter of National Women’s Liberation and local business Karma Cream, have endorsed the coalition’s campaign. In addition, the campaign’s goal has garnered strong national support. A Feb. 2014 Pew Research Center survey concluded 73 percent of Americans are in favor of increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

The biggest argument for raising the minimum wage is not about numbers — it’s about morality.

“Everyone wants to be paid a wage where they can support their families, live with dignity and don’t have to rely on assistance,” Payne said.

But according to Pam Whittle, president of the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce, the issue is not so simple.

“Unless you do something about the whole genre, there’s not much you can do about it,” she said. “And it’s not that everyone doesn’t want more money in their pocket, it’s that the reality is raising the minimum wage doesn’t result in everyone having more money in their pockets. All boats rise with the tide: If the minimum wage goes up, the price of all things goes up.”

In 2004, Floridians voted to add the Florida Minimum Wage Amendment to the state constitution. The provision states that all working Floridians are entitled to a minimum wage sufficient to provide “a decent and healthy life” and does not force working Floridians to rely on “taxpayer-funded public services.”

However, reality has not reflected this sentiment. Many companies that are against an increased minimum wage profit by not having to pay their workers more, Tattersall said, because the difference between the wage they pay and a living wage is supplemented by taxpayer subsidies.

“We made this pact years and years ago, before any of us were born, that if you live here and work here, we’re not going to let you starve. We’re not going to let your children starve,” he said. “That’s our pact, and it’s being taken advantage of by a lot of these companies that are paying below the minimum wage.”

Many companies that are against an increased minimum wage profit by not having to pay their workers more, Tattersall said, because the difference between the wage they pay and a living wage is supplemented by taxpayer subsidies.

With the Florida Legislature and even the University of Florida against it, the coalition faces a tough fight. Despite the Aug. 3 decision to raise the minimum wage for UF employees from $10 an hour to $12, President Kent Fuchs has so far declined to meet with the coalition.

“We would love to sit down with him and talk about our campaign, because it would be huge,” coalition co-chairman Jason Fults said. “It would have ripples throughout the community. We’re really interested in dialoguing with UF.”

Dialogue, Fults said, is one of the coalition’s main goals. The coalition wants a living wage to be something everybody is talking about.

“Because when we have a conversation, we win,” he said. “That’s really why wages are the way they are now — because we’ve stopped having that conversation.”

Gabriela Delva contributed to this report.