living wage organizing and complications

colist-admin at colist-admin at
Mon Jan 14 13:12:37 CST 2002

[ed:  thanks to Jim and Jen for the interesting thoughts and analysis 
on nonprofits and living wage organizing.]

From: "Jim Powell (Northside Planning Council)" 
<npc at>

I helped pass living wage laws in Madison and Dane County, Wisc. 
One of our 
major allies was a large human services agency that received a lot 
of money 
from the county. We also enjoyed the support of several other 
service agencies.

The large agency supported us because the director was strong 
advocate of 
higher wages for higher quality, committed employees. He 
argued, even before the living wage laws, that for his agency to 
quality care for X amount of people, he needed X amount of 
money. he called 
it "fighting the poverty mentality of service agencies." He pays his 
employees well and they provide quality service. The county 
responds by 
meeting his annual requests.

Overall, our campaign always used the refrain "Taxpayers' money 
should not 
be used to keep people in poverty." A simple statement but that 
one that 
resonated throughout the city and county. Why should government 
keep people 
in poverty? Pay a living wage and you'll experience less turnover in 
better performance and better service. In addition, our living wage 
are indexed to the federal poverty level for a family of four (plus an 
additional 10% for the City of Madison); thus the wage goes up 
every year. 
We built a strong coalition, mobilized elected officials to address 
(often irrational) concerns of their colleagues, and built strong 
support. The final votes were 33-4 (county) and 13-5 (city). 
opposition evaporated before the final vote.

Human service agencies by and large went along with the living 
although they were very worried about "wage compression" (an 
entry level 
worker at living wage would make close to what another 
experienced worker 
currently made after a raise or two). Unfortunately, the political will 
provide agencies with additional money to address the wage 
ended after one budget cycle. However, though agencies complain, 
I have not 
seen any serious employee retention problems as a result of the 
compression" issue. One caveat: I haven't polled agencies directly 
this, but the issue is not being raised politically.

I'll be happy to share more if you're interested.

Facilitator, Northside Planning Council
Editor, Northside News
1202 Northport Ave Rm 300, Madison, WI 53704
608.242.6338   608.242.6256 fax
npc at


From: "Jen Kern" <natacorncam at>

I wanted to respond to Doug Hess's posting about the defeat of the 
Alleghancy County Living Wage bill and the larger question about 
the role of human service agencies in living wage campaigns.  

The Alleghany campaign is unique in several ways, including the 
stinging about-face by one of their earliest sponsors at the bitter 
end.  The campaign differed from most in its unwavering 
commitment to and deliberate pursuit of a  bill that would cover -- 
not exempt -- low wage workers on county contracts for 
human/social services.  Because of this commitment, the campaign 
was always going to be harder to win.  Unsurprisingly, as their own 
research showed, the bulk of the the cost of the law they proposed 
would have been for the low paid human service workers employed 
by agencies receiving county money.  Because of the unavoidable 
public costs associated with their proposal, the campaign 
stategically lobbied the state to increase their contribution to the 
county for these services and lobbied the county (successfully to a 
degree) to set aside some money and earmark it for raises to these 

Throughout the campaign they got both support and opposition 
from this sector. They got some support from workers, providers 
and consumers (for example, clients of home health care workes). 
They also made serious compromises along the way to ease the 
phase-in of public expense. (these compromises were conveniently 
ignoire by those who wanted to couch their opposition to the law in 
terms of "not wanting to hamstring social services")  

Non-profit and for profit human service agencies and programs -- 
home health care, day care, Head Start, Meals on Wheels, etc -- 
have played a role in a handful of other living wage campaigns on 
both sides of the fence.  In the successful Suffolk County, NY 
campaign, for example, the assosicaiton representing the (for 
profit) home health care agencies organized aggressively against 
the lw law there, while at the same time, individual  

In Detroit, St. Louis,and other cities and counties, non-profit 
agencies let themseles become a tool of the Chamber of 
Commerce's opposition to lw -- in St. Louis even joining the hotel 
and restaurant association as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city 
to overturn the living wage law (passed by ACORN and allies with 
77% of the vote at the ballot). In Miami-Dade Co., Madison (Dane 
County) and Santa Cruz, and others some version of a "human 
services coalition" played a positive role in the campaign coalition.  

This is certainly an emergent issue in the living wage movement, 
as more and more campaigns attempt to address the problem of 
publicly funded poverty in the care professions.  The ACORN 
Living Wage Resource Center is committed to helping campaign 
navigate this difficult terrain.  If anyone would like to discuss this in 
more detail, I'd be happy to learn from your suggestions/questions 
(by e-mail or 202-271-1422).  

Jen Kern
ACORN Living Wage Resource Center

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