The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News March 3, 2006

Oberlin Works to Raise Minimum Wage

Here’s something you might not know about Ohio: Its minimum wage is $4.25/h — $0.90 less than the federal. In most cases, the federal minimum trumps the state, but not in all: companies that gross less than $500,000 a year in sales default to the state minimum. But perhaps not for long: Some Ohioans are petitioning to raise the wage to $6.85/h.

The petition is being circulated by Ohioans for a Fair Minimum Wage, a coalition that includes Let Justice Roll Ohio, Ohio American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations and Ohio state Senator C.J. Prentiss from Cleveland, who could not be reached for comment.

If the coalition gathers 322,899 signatures from registered Ohio voters by this August, a constitutional amendment will appear on the 2006 ballot that would not only raise the wage once, but stipulate that it be adjusted annually for inflation. If it passes, it will be the first Ohio legislation to raise minimum wage since 1990.

“We think this is a good way to start a serious dialogue about labor in this state,” said Tim Burga, legislative director of Ohio AFL-CIO and co-chair of the OFMW steering committee.

Joe Thayer, one of the Lorain County organizers of OFMW, said that if this initiative passes, it will have a tremendous impact on Lorain County.

“With the industrial base that this county has and the loss it [the base] has seen over the years, any little increase is going to help the middle class in this area support their families,” he said.

College senior Brendan Kelley, Oberlin campus field coordinator of congressman Sherrod Brown’s 2006 Senate campaign, is working to raise awareness of the issue locally. Kelley and other students manning Brown’s information table in Wilder have also been gathering signatures for the wage petition.

Reverend Paul Sherry, the national coordinator for Let Justice Roll, visited Oberlin on Monday to give a talk at Mount Zion Church titled “A Just Minimum Wage.”

“I was very encouraged by the gathering,” he said. “I think everyone who was there sees the justice of the issue and are eager to find out more about the campaign and how they can be involved.”

Oberlin’s response to the proposed initiative is generally positive.

“In general, all of us [in City government] would favor it,” said City Manager Robert DiSpirito. “It’s been a number of years since it’s been increased. Most employers [in the area] are already paying more than the minimum that’s being proposed, so it would be a positive thing.”

But not everyone is pleased. Ohio State Senator and chair of the Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee, Steve Stivers, is concerned the initiative would directly punish small businesses. He supports raising the wage to equal but not exceed the Federal minimum.

“The problem with raising the state minimum wage above the federal is that it will increase the cost of doing business in Ohio and drive jobs out of Ohio,” said Stivers. “We’ve lost a quarter of million jobs in Ohio [in the past several years] and the last thing we need to do is drive jobs out.”

Burga, however, is confident that the new wage would stimulate economic growth.

“The people benefiting from this aren’t going to be putting this money into their savings. They’re going to put it back into the market,” Burga said.

Sherry agreed. “When [the minimum wage] was raised nationally in 1997, job growth was significant,” he said.

Sherry pointed out that the assumption that those benefiting from this increase will be part-time teenagers is false: 71 percent of minimum wage earners are at least 20 years old.

“Most people who receive minimum wage are adult women and women of color,” said Sherry. “Many teenagers who are working minimum-wage do so because they, like the rest of us, need the money to survive.”

The petition’s supporters have reason to be hopeful. The volunteer effort, responsible for gathering 150,000 signatures, has reached two-thirds of its goal already, and a July 2005 poll conducted by Lake, Snell, Perry, Mirmen & Associates showed 70 percent of Ohioans support raising the minimum wage.

“You look at [the polling data] and you look at the last election when this state was almost evenly split, you see that this isn’t primarily a liberal issue or a democratic issue. It cuts across partisan lines to mainstream conservative folks who see this as not only an economic issue, but a moral issue,” said Katy Heins, lead organizer of Let Justice Roll Ohio.

Thayer is similarly enthusiastic about the effort in Lorain. “We’re doing great. Everyone is very receptive to [the petition]. The momentum we carried for Wal-Mart in November is carrying on through these other issues” Thayer said.

But Senator Stivers is doubtful the petition will amount to much if it reaches ballot.

“In the past the voters have been very discriminating,” said Stivers. “I have a hard time believing that they will support an issue that will drive jobs out of Ohio.”


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