Mostly because UniGov includes suburban voters in city elections, Indianapolis is one of the most conservative big cities in the country. In recent months, over 100 U.S. municipal councils passed resolutions opposing the invasion of Iraq. Ours endorsed it. Anti-predatory lending laws that have passed in other venues haven’t even been tried here. For a time, Indianapolis was one of the biggest cities in the country to be governed by a Republican mayor and a Republican council.
So you see the challenge facing the Community Faith and Labor Coalition of Indianapolis. Founded three years ago to pursue a local living wage ordinance, a law passed in 102 other U.S. municipalities, the Coalition has already traveled a rocky path.
A living wage ordinance proposed last year by Democrat Councilors Joanne Sanders and Elwood Black would have required city and county governments to pay a living wage (beginning at $10 an hour) to their employees. The law would have imposed the same requirement on companies seeking local government contracts, tax abatement’s or other subsidies. But the ordinance never got a hearing, scuttled by a lack of support from both council Republicans and Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat.
The activists have kept plugging along, nurturing the growing coalition of dozens of local faith-based, worker and community organizations. In the past year, the Coalition has held teach-ins, conducted marches and lobbied individual councilors. Indianapolis may be a conservative town, but the folks with the progressive idea aren’t going to give up.
“A living wage ordinance is so important because the minimum wage has not kept up with the times,” says Nancy Holle, one of the coordinators of the Coalition. Holle points out that the $5.15 federal minimum provides barely more than half the federal poverty level for a family of four.
The Coalition’s main rhetorical task is defusing the Chamber of Commerce prediction that economic disaster would flow from paying workers enough to feed their children. Activists call this “the Chicken Little argument.” Given that it is propounded by folks who drive cars worth more than many county workers’ annual salary, it is a credit to the activists” restraint that they don’t call it the “Let Them Eat Cake” argument.
Fortunately, the Coalition has the facts on their side. Several studies show that the dozens of living wage laws already in place have reduced poverty with little or no negative impact on the local economy.
Finally, this past January, the Coalition had its first taste of success. Mayor Peterson granted the lowest-paid city workers a raise to just under $10 per hour. But workers for the county government and firms doing business or getting tax breaks from the city were not included. So in the 2003 municipal elections, the Coalition intends to make the living wage an issue in council and mayoral races.
Along with John Gibson, Jay Carrigan and the late Dale Hathaway, Holle has been the public face of the coalition since day one. “One of the things we talked about when we founded the Coalition is how to make the American dream more accessible,” she says. “For many people, especially single moms who are working for $7 an hour and maybe having to get a second or third job, that dream is nothing but a mirage.”
For more information about the Indianapolis living wage campaign, check Indylivingwage.org.