After decades of dormancy, the labor movement seems to be finally stirring. And yet sadly this political awakening seems not to have yet reached the workers of the North Country.
Just in the past year, the Washington city of SeaTac raised it’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, and other locales are considering similar measures. Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant, running as an open opponent of capitalism, won a city-wide election to join the Seattle City Council. Fast food strikes planned across the country and the world for May 15, by which time we will have gone to press, are expected to be the largest in history.
But where is this newfound class-consciousness in upstate New York? It’s not as if we’re lacking the requisite ingredients. We can see cavernous wealth disparity all around us. Nearby Franklin is the second poorest county in New York state. In Lake Placid, a supposed winter wonderland, the Cascade Acres trailer park is situated just a few minutes drive from the lavish Mirror Lake Inn.
In what is perhaps an indication to which the exploitation of workers is not on our political leaders’ radar, few of the local politicians who we discussed the issue with spoke with confidence regarding the level of government at which the minimum wage for public and private workers could be raised.
Lewis supervisor David Blades said he didn’t believe he had the power to raise the minimum wage at the town level, but even if he did, he likely wouldn’t support it. “I probably would not support a raise, but then again I might.”
Essex County Attorney Daniel Manning said he didn’t believe the minimum wage could be adjusted at the town or county level, but he wasn’t sure.
“I have no idea,” Manning said. “It’s not anything that’s ever occurred to me.”
Willsboro Supervisor Shaun Gillilland said he didn’t know offhand at what level of government the minimum wage could be raised, but either way he would not support a pay hike for working families. “I think it kills economic development for small business,” Gillilland said.
North Elba Supervisor Robi Politi, who owns a real estate company, saw raising workers’ pay as a non-issue. “I don’t think about the minimum wage,” Politi said. “I have bigger fish to fry.”
Elizabethtown Supervisor Noel Merrihew said he didn’t think the minimum wage could be adjusted at the town or county level. But he would support tying it to cost of living adjustments.
Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava said he thought the minimum wage could only be raised on the federal or state level.
“(Otherwise) that would require home-rule legislation,” he said. “If that’s even possible.” Still Scozzafava said he supported raising the minimum wage, though he didn’t have an exact figure in mind. “I think the overall impact on the economy would be positive and it would reduce our dependency on social programs,” he said, adding there were large numbers of the working poor in the Adirondacks. “If you work, in my opinion, you have the right to support yourself and a family.”
Scozzafava continued, highlighting the pay gap between corporate executives and rank-and-file workers.
“They pay their top people the equivalent of a thousand of their employees or more a year,” he said, before interjecting he was “not against capitalism.”
Those workers who make well above the minimum wage might believe the struggles of their more-exploited brethren do not effect their economic position. But such a view is shortsighted. Boosting the income of the lowest-paid workers will raise the salaries of higher-paid workers as expectations for fair compensation rise. On the other hand, reducing the pay of the lowest-paid workers will pull down the salaries of higher-paid workers as expectations for fair compensation drop.
North Country laborers should vote their class interests. We should assess local candidates positions’ based on whether they benefit the working class and to what degree. Do our politicians support raising the minimum wage for working families? And if so, how large of a raise do they support? Are our politicians in favor of shifting the tax burden for necessary government services toward the rich? And if so, to what extent? In deciding for whom to vote, North Country workers should consider questions like these.