Last June, Seattle City Council members told their constituents that the government there respects workers. By voting to boost the minimum wage in that municipality to $11 an hour this April, then up to $15 over the next five or seven years, depending on the size of the enterprise, officials took a chance on employees as opposed to just employers for a change. The ordinance is already yielding results for families that may now have a better chance of lifting themselves out of poverty, while the historic move was also a symbolic win, in which the honchos who wield power there declared that in the future, Seattle hopes to welcome all classes of people.
As corporate media outlets have even begun to report, highlighting positive anecdotal accounts of wage increase implementation thus far, the move in Washington state is already looking hopeful. Meanwhile, in Greater Boston, Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen hopes to follow that West Coast example, as well as comparable experiments in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mazen, who was a vocal participant in Occupy Boston protests, is a co-owner of the 3D art and laser-cutting business Danger!Awesome in Central Square, and is now up for reelection to the Cambridge seat he won in 2013, is just getting the livable wage ball rolling, mostly working with his chief of staff and a small group of volunteers. We asked him about the long slog ahead, the major legal hurdles he will likely face, and upcoming action steps in his wage crusade.
What, if any role have you played in the statewide or nationwide minimum wage fight? And is there a bedrock mission statement you will be following?
I watched, and I think everyone knows it should be $15 an hour, but I also think that everyone [in the Boston area] secretly feels in their gut that this just isn’t going to happen, like the state’s not going to manifest this on some known timeline. I think there is a basic mission statement. What we’re doing definitely comes on the tail of what is happening in Seattle and San Francisco, and it is definitely coming in concert with minimum wage discussions all over the country.
As it is, politicians on Beacon Hill are bragging that they’re going to have the highest statewide minimum wage as a result of legislation passed last year …
Sure, it will be the highest for any state, but it’s still not what people actually need. If you took the 1960s federal minimum wage, and just increased it for inflation, you would have a minimum wage today that is way above $15 an hour nationwide. You need that minimum wage to affect a strong working class and a strong middle class and to have a mobility between those classes. Everything else is going to be more stagnant [without] that buying power.
Is it natural for Cambridge, or Massachusetts to be at the forefront of this?
We’re behind. We should have been number one. We’re number one for gay marriage and a whole host of other things, and it’s like, “Why aren’t we way ahead of the curve here?” We have 105,000 people in this city [Cambridge], but we have an unbelievable amount of extremely high value construction that buoys our economy and empowers our local government to do incredible things for education. But how could we not take care of a very basic wage right? We have commercial development, we have academic powerhouses, we have everything we need to empower the upper middle class and above.
What has your research showed you so far that makes it clear something needs to be done in this area?
You have a couple of things that are interesting and disturbing in terms of context here. Something like 15 percent of people are in affordable housing in Cambridge, with a capital A, which is among the highest in the state. We want to house as many people as possible who need it, housing is a human right, but we also have 45 percent of our public school kids on free and reduced lunch, which means that their parents are living around the poverty line. We just have a significant number of people in the community who are working three jobs. We’re trying to make it so that people who are struggling to buy a house, who are struggling to raise a family, who are struggling to put down roots here can make it with what they’ve already got and have the buying power to get by.
Does anybody have your back yet?
What is the impact of that? They get all the hippie customers? The least turnover in employees? What are you hearing?
That’s what we’ve heard about a similar place out of Chicago, where the employees have less turnover and more zeal for the job. There are a lot of microeconomic consequences of taking a $9 an hour job; you’re excited when you get it, but anyone who has ever had one of those jobs knows that they are always on the lookout for something better, always trying to get that $10 or $11 an hour job somewhere else, and frankly, always having to have other jobs, which takes away from their ability to focus. Irrespective of how basic it is for social justice, the fact is that if you financially benefit the wealthy, they will save it, but if you put dollars in the pockets of people who are working or middle class, they will spend it at local businesses. It happens right away.
What is the actual process through which this has to happen?
Last year I put in a Cambridge City Council policy order with the city manager instructing him and the solicitor to research the legality of a citywide minimum wage, even though we know that Massachusetts doesn’t have the same allowances for cities that some other states do. Certain arrangements in Massachusetts cannot be overseen by municipalities. We argue that in this one, we ought to have the power without [approval from the state legislature] or state oversight. The city basically found that there are some ways to do this.
So you’re saying there’s a fight ahead …
I don’t think anyone will be able to sustain the rallying force of any city doing this. If any amount of people get behind this, if any municipality gets behind this, it’s going to have a domino effect.
How much of the relatively stable economic climate is your reason for doing this right now?
You have to do it regardless. This is a human rights thing.
Is there any pushback yet?
The conversation has kind of been, “We don’t know what traction this is going to see, but if it starts to see traction, we sure hope you’re not going to jam this through without input from the business community.” I’m saying it’s not going to be fly by night.
What’s the next step?
On the 25th we’re having a worker rally at Danger!Awesome at 6pm. And then there’s a committee meeting for office of Neighborhood and Long Term Planning on Tuesday, September 8 at 6pm at City Hall. You see what the response is at that hearing, you see what people say, and then you try and push it through … We’re also going to do a challenge where councilors and others try to live on the current minimum wage. At the end of the day, the lesson will be that none of us really can live on $10 a day.
What do you pay your employees at Danger!Awesome?
We’re actually in the transition now from paying about $12 an hour to having a conversation about how we can get to $15 before this is even passed. The question now is, “How can we be a just employer?” We can’t afford to pay that, and we want to pay it anyway.
As the minimum wage effort gains momentum in Cambridge, we also plan to interview the workers on the ground, as well as members of their family, labor attorneys, union representatives, and employers. If you or anyone you know is interested in speaking with us, please email: email@example.com.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.