Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Schwarzenegger and Reagan: Two of a Kind
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Count your blessings, California Republicans and other fans of big business: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has set out sure-footedly on the anti-labor path laid down by your hero of heroes, former Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Like Reagan before him, Schwarzenegger doesn't believe low-wage workers should be guaranteed pay above the poverty level. The Democratic majority in the State Legislature thought so, but then you know how radical those Democrats can be. Imagine, they actually passed a bill that would have raised California's minimum wage of $6.75 an hour by a whole dollar over the next two years.

But to the rescue came Republican Schwarzenegger to veto the bill. Why, said he, that raise was so great it would "create barriers to our economic recovery" by impeding job growth. The Gipper, who argued against the very existence of a legal minimum on much the same grounds, couldn't have said it better.

The governor's veto means that an estimated 1.5 million working Californians - most of them adults trying to support themselves and their families -- will continue living in poverty, despite the state law that calls for the minimum to be high enough to guarantee workers "a proper standard of living." At the current minimum, even those who manage to work full time make just slightly over $14,000 a year -- $270 a week or about $1100 a month, minus taxes and other deductions.

Schwarzenegger and Reagan to the contrary, it would be highly unlikely that an increase in their pay would slow job growth. Just the opposite has occurred every time the minimum has been increased, in large part because of increased spending by those whose pay has gone up. Like all low-paid workers, they had to spend virtually every cent they earned, thus raising the overall demand for goods and services and for the hiring of new employees to help provide them.

Like Reagan and his business buddies, Schwarzenegger and his business buddies would rather we not know that employers of minimum wage workers are getting big fat subsidies from the rest of us. A recent report from the University of California's Center for Labor Research and Education showed that almost half the $21.2 billion a year in public assistance paid out in California goes to families whose working members do not earn enough to be self-supporting. Private charities provide additional millions of dollars in aid to the families.

UC Professor Michael Reich, one of more than three-dozen economists who urged the governor to sign the minimum wage bill, calculated that the raise could have saved taxpayers more than $2 billion that will now have to be spent on social programs for lower-income families.

It should be obvious, as it is to Schwarzenegger and company, that employers are shifting a significant part of their labor costs to us and that welfare costs that we also shoulder could be substantially reduced if the minimum wage was raised.

Keeping employers from having to pay a fair share of what it takes to provide something approaching a decent life for all of the state's working people was but one of the governor's recent large favors for his business allies.

Schwarzenegger also vetoed bills that would have denied state contracts to employers who planned to have the job done by workers overseas, would have provided vineyard workers greater protection from pesticides and would have tightened the rules requiring rest periods for hotel maids.

Another vetoed measure would have made it difficult for giant retailers such as Wal-Mart to open more superstores such as those that already have done great harm to neighborhood businesses throughout the state. That prompted a Reaganesque explanation that the bill "would stifle market competition and expansion of employment."

On the other hand, Schwarzenegger eagerly signed a bill that limits the rights of workers to sue their employers over State Labor Code violations.

Like fellow actor Reagan, Schwarzenegger is a fast study. In no time at all, he may be playing the role of anti-labor governor every bit as well as did Reagan. He's certainly off to a good start.

Copyright Dick Meister