The small conference room in the State House was packed with a diverse group of politicians, activists, union leaders, and ordinary citizens. The event was a press conference sponsored by women’s groups to raise awareness of an upcoming ballot initiative. It was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote in 1920.
In addition to electing a (hopefully new) governor on November 5, there’s a statewide referendum on the same ballot to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour and peg it to the cost of living. Arguably, that vote will have more impact on the lives of everyday New Jerseyans than the contest at the top of the ballot.
Earlier this year, Governor Christie put the needs of New Jersey’s working poor on the back burner and vetoed a minimum wage bill. His rationale was that we could not index the minimum wage to the cost of living. Yet, while the cost of living has continued to increase, the state’s minimum wage (which is the same as the Federal minimum despite the fact that we are one of the more expensive states to live in) has not gone up in many years, eroding the purchasing power of hundreds of thousands of New Jersey workers.
A New Jersey worker earning minimum wage (and 60% of them are women) in a 40-hour/week job, will have an annual salary that puts her $4,200 below the federal poverty level. And despite the rhetoric of the Tea Party, many of these women are not teenagers at their first job, but are breadwinner heads of households.
As one of the speakers, AFT-NJ President Donna Chiera, put it, the battle for income equity is fully tied in with other systemic inequities in our society including voter suppression, marriage equality, affordable housing, and the plight of undocumented residents.
So far, the ballot initiative has not received a lot of press. Today’s event was held to raise awareness of this initiative. You can expect business and industry associations to pour a lot of money into a campaign to defeat this in November, even though companies like Costco have amply demonstrated that a livable wage helps both employers and employees.
The Democratic candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor spoke at the press conference. Here are their remarks. I’ll post some remarks from some of the other speakers later on.