Keep your hands off our wages

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Op-ed by Lew Prince
St. Louis Post Dispatch, Feb 23 2011
The Republicans in the Missouri Legislature are trying to overturn the clearly expressed will of the people in order to give gigantic welfare checks to some of America's biggest corporations.

Nearly 1.6 million Missourians voted to raise the minimum wage in 2006. Only 501,657 voted against the proposition. That was a 3-to-1 margin.

To put that into perspective, in the same election, Democrat Claire McCaskill beat Republican Jim Talent by fewer than 49,000 votes in the U.S. Senate race. That means more than a million Republican-leaning voters saw the need to raise the wages of the poorest working Missourians. According to exit polls, the minimum-wage proposition was favored by Democrats, independents and Republicans; liberals, moderates and conservatives; urban, suburban and rural voters; low-income, middle-income and high-income voters; and voters of all ages.

Missourians voted overwhelmingly to raise the minimum wage and protect the working poor with a cost-of-living adjustment. This tiny adjustment amounts to pennies an hour. The COLA gives families who barely are keeping their heads above water a fighting chance when prices rise.

Republicans are pushing legislation to undo the cost-of-living adjustment and prevent the minimum wage from rising above the federal rate of $7.25. Why would Missouri Republicans want to hurt workers who today are making just $15,080 if they are paid for 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year? Why would they want to hurt the most vulnerable workers in our state?

They say it's to help small businesses. Well, I've run a small business in Missouri for 32 years and I say, BUNK!

Higher minimum wages help Missouri businesses, large or small, compete with gigantic national and multinational chains. Local businesses compete by being part of the community — from hiring our neighbors to sponsoring youth leagues — and by providing service that gigantic multinational chains with their feed-more-profits-to-headquarters policies cannot match. To do this, I need well-trained, long-term employees. I have to pay them more to keep them. My customers know my employees and are loyal to my business because of them.

Large Missouri companies like Schnucks and Dierbergs, which pay decent union wages, have to compete with predators like Wal-Mart, which pay the lowest wages they can get away with. Why would the Republicans in the Missouri Legislature want to side with multinational retailers and gigantic restaurant chains in their competition with Missouri businesses?

The minimum wage is a full dollar higher in Illinois — $8.25 instead of $7.25. That means for every hour worked in Illinois, an extra dollar stays in the state and helps the local economy. Why do the Republicans in our Legislature want to see that money end up at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., or Wall Street or in some offshore bank account instead of buying groceries and car repairs and paying rent here in Missouri?

What's worse is Missouri taxpayers already subsidize these out-of-state corporate giants.

Did you know that according to the Missouri Healthnet Employer Report, in the first quarter of 2009 (the latest data available) Wal-Mart employees alone cost Missouri taxpayers $4.2 million in Medicaid costs. Casey's General Store cost Missouri taxpayers $884,104 while Tyson Foods, Dollar General and Target combined for another $1.4 million? Why are Missouri taxpayers subsidizing a company like Wal-Mart, the fountain of wealth for America's richest family?

Who knows how many of these underpaid employees qualify for food stamps and other subsidies. These are the costs we pay while large companies and their lobbyists fight against a meager few cents an hour in raises for their Missouri employees for whom those pennies add up to milk or medicine for their children. Remember these same companies pay a dollar more per hour for minimum wage in Illinois and still turn huge profits there.

It's time for all of us to write, call or e-mail our state legislators and remind them that they work for us, not multinational giants. Tell them to keep their hands off the minimum wage that we voted for.

Lew Prince is managing partner of Vintage Vinyl, an independent music store with 24 employees in St. Louis. He also is a member of Business for Shared Prosperity.