Why the Living Wage Initiative would work for Missoula 

It’s an established principle of American business ethics that people who take pride in their work and do a good job deserve fair treatment from their employers.

To preface a discussion of the Missoula Living Wage Initiative on next week’s ballot with this single statement might seem simple, but it’s an appropriate response to the cynical opposition the initiative has provoked, particularly from the local daily newspaper, which has devoted an inordinate amount of space to attacking the proposal.

On the face of it, the Living Wage Initiative is a straightforward idea to keep organizations that are riding on the taxpayers’ coattails from riding the backs of employees as well.

The Living Wage Initiative simply guarantees that the Missoula city government and organizations that receive financial assistance from it pay their employees a decent amount of money. Enough money to live here. Enough money to get off welfare. Enough money to participate fully and freely in the economic life of the community.

That works out to $8 or $9 an hour plus health benefits.

Opponents of the initiative have attacked it on two fronts. The thoughtful opponents say it’s technically flawed. Less sophisticated opponents say it’s just a bad idea to legislate wages. They’d rather have us ignore our responsibility for the social conditions we create by relinquishing control to market forces.

They contend that when the labor market is tight, as it is now, wages will naturally rise. When the tide turns and unemployment rises, employers can then take advantage of their stronger position and reduce wages.

But while it’s easy to assume that employers will always pay whatever it takes to retain the workers they need, it’s naive to imagine they’ll be nice when they’ve got the upper hand. In fact, we know they won’t. A local sporting goods manufacturer, Sun Mountain Sports, which received $201,000 in tax subsidies from Missoula citizens, repaid the favor by moving 40 manufacturing jobs to China, where wages are lower—along with the standard of living and the strength of democracy.

The wonky opponents of the Living Wage Initiative—including Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas, who says he supports the principle of a living wage—argue that it creates undesirable consequences for the city government by mandating higher wages for seasonal employees, and that the language of the initiative will invite costly legal challenges.

But some of the city’s employees, like Laura Holderness, a 30-year-old outdoor program instructor for the Parks and Recreation department, who has both a bachelor’s degree and professional first aid certification, say they deserve a living wage. Who would suggest they don’t?

As for the technical issues raised by Kadas and others, we can look at the precedents, or rather the lack of them. Supporters of the initiative say that of the dozens of living wage ordinances adopted by other American cities, none has ever been challenged in court.

No law is perfect, but if the mayor and his sympathizers feel compelled to craft bullet-proof legislation, then they should have rolled up their sleeves when the notion of a living wage first came up. Let’s face it. Opposing the Living Wage Initiative on the grounds that it’s technically defective provides convenient political cover for those who seek the favor of conservative members of the business community.

The Independent is in business, too. And with an annual payroll of more than $250,000, we’re acutely aware of the difficulty of sustaining a successful enterprise. But the Living Wage Initiative isn’t a threat to us or any other organization. It’s really only threatening to anxious bosses who have problems with personnel management.

Supporters of the Living Wage Initiative produced a study that predicted the proposed ordinance would actually reduce the overall tax burden by moving working poor off the welfare rolls. Opponents used the study as the basis of a perverse and disreputable counter-argument, pointing out that total income for workers would decline if they were paid a living wage and lost their eligibility for government assistance.

That argument relies on the cynical assumption that people would rather stay on welfare than earn a decent wage for honest work. That’s a contemptible assumption. People want to work. They want control over their lives. They know they can’t buy a house with food stamps. And they know instinctively that we can’t build a thriving local economy with lousy pay.

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