OUTMANEUVERED AND OUTHUSTLED, Republicans in Congress earlier this month lost the fight to keep the federal minimum wage from jumping to $5.15 an hour. It is an iron law of economics that if you make something more expensive, the demand for it will fall, so there is no doubt about the impact of the new minimum. Thousands of low-wage jobs are going to disappear; thousands more won't be created. Many workers for whom a $4.25-an-hour job would have been a first step up the economic ladder will find themselves unemployable when the ladder's lowest rung vaults 21 percent. In the name of "compassion," entry-level windows of opportunity everywhere will be slamming shut.
But if the minimum-wage battle in Washington is over, elsewhere it's just heating up. Activists in many cities and states are campaigning for local minimum wage laws even higher than the one Congress has approved. One group in particular is leading these campaigns -- the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.
In its own words, ACORN is a "community advocacy organization for low- and moderate-income families." It sees itself as a street-fighter for the poor and claims more than 75,000 members. Higher minimum wage laws are one of its top priorities; lately it has rolled up one milestone after another.
On July 5, ACORN submitted 130,000 signatures to the Missouri secretary of state, more than enough to qualify a minimum-wage initiative for the state ballot this fall. If it passes, Missouri's lowest hourly wage would rise to $6.25 next year and to $6.75 by 1999 -- the highest of any state. To celebrate making the ballot, ACORN just hosted hundreds of supporters at a St. Louis convention. Jesse Jackson was the star attraction, and "Fighting for Living Wages" was the theme.
ACORN-backed initiatives are ballot-bound in two other states as well. In California, Proposition 210 would push the state minimum wage to $5.75 an hour. And voters in Montana will be asked to raise their state's minimum to $6.25.
In Denver, ACORN is pushing a ballot question hiking the minimum wage higher still -- to $7.15 an hour, or 39 percent more than the rate Congress just agreed to. Adopting such a measure would amount to municipal suicide, but ACORN officials say $7.15 an hour is simply an "equitable wage" for working people. "Give them some buying power," urges board member Marjorie Lidalda. "Give them some dignity."
ACORN's minimum-wage battlefields are everywhere. "Houston, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, and St. Paul are all places where ACORN is forcing debates to a head this year," Governing Magazine reported in June. "Organizers are plotting strategies in at least a dozen additional cities." When it comes to forcing employers to pay higher starting wages, ACORN may be the most insistent and vehement pressure group in America.
It may also be the most hypocritical.
In a suit filed in California Superior Court (and carried to the Court of Appeal), ACORN tried to exempt itself from paying the state's minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. On what grounds? Here's ACORN's brief:
"The more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker -- either because of minimum wage or overtime requirements -- the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire." Do tell. That is precisely the point employers have been making in vain: Minimum-wage laws kill jobs. But what towering hypocrisy! ACORN campaigns to hike California's minimum to $5.75 an hour, but says it can't afford $4.25. If gall were an Olympic event, ACORN would carry off the gold.
For utter shamelessness, though, nothing tops ACORN's second argument: We have to pay our employees starvation wages, it pleads -- or they won't be as effective.
"The quality of ACORN's message is affected," explains the brief, "when remuneration for its workers is regulated by the state. A person paid limited sums of money will be in a better position to empathize with and relate to the low and moderate income constituency of ACORN.... From personal experience, the worker will be better able to understand the frustrations and aspirations of the ACORN membership and constituency, and thus able to recruit them into the ACORN organization."
It is hard to imagine an argument more grotesque. The appeals court called it an "absurdity."
For the record, ACORN claims it would never underpay its workers. "We only pursued the case because of some recordkeeping requirements," says its executive director, Steve Kest. Because his employees are so "politically committed," many of them stay at work late to volunteer additional time. ACORN's only purpose in going to court, Kest maintains, was to make sure it wouldn't have to pay for those volunteer hours.
The only thing wrong with that explanation is that it appears nowhere in ACORN's brief.
At times, we all fall short of the ideals we profess. But between ACORN's words and ACORN's deeds looms a gap far greater than mere human imperfection. It is the chasm of hypocrisy, born of arrogance and self-righteousness -- and wide enough to swallow whatever credibility ACORN had.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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