Raise the minimum wage to chip away at the legacy of white supremacy | Kadida Kenner

April 10, 2019 6:30 am

By Kadida Kenner

If we are ever to solve the moral dilemma of pay inequity in Pennsylvania, let alone the nation, we must first confront one of the most prevailing causes—white supremacy. Pay inequity is deeply-rooted in American history and continues to keep women and people of color relegated to a form of second-class citizenship.

Pennsylvania’s legislators can help close gender and race pay gaps and provide some semblance of economic justice by raising the minimum wage to $12/hour this summer on a path to $15/hour by 2025.

This increase must also eliminate Pennsylvania’s low tipped minimum wage, now a ridiculous $2.83 per hour, and establish a single minimum wage for ALL Pennsylvania workers — “One Fair Wage.”

It’s time to remind our neighboring states that Pennsylvania is historically the home of the nation’s greatest abolitionists and women suffragettes—we can lead the fight for economic justice for tipped workers in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states.

April 2 was Equal Pay Day 2019.

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On that day, after working more than three months in 2019, the average full-time, year-round working woman finally caught up to the 2018 earnings of her male counterpart. Intersectional advocates who fight for justice on issues of both gender and race bring attention to the disparity in pay for the average woman, and righteously so for women of color, including African-American women.

For more than 400 years in this country, African-American workers, particularly African-American women have earned low wages, if they earned wages at all, because of the legacy of slavery. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that African-American women earn 61 cents in wages for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men.

How is pay inequity rooted in white supremacy?

The answer lies in American history.

Soon after the emancipation of African slaves in the late 19th century and during the period of reconstruction, wealthy Americans traveled across the pond on holiday and learned the ways of the European aristocrats.

Vacationing Americans discovered something called the tipped wage.

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Europeans paid their service workers a normal wage and also expected the consumers of service to give a little something extra to the staff—a tip.

When Americans brought this tradition back to the states, they eliminated the normal wage for service workers and instituted a system that relied on the tips provided by strangers as an alternative to paying a fair wage. Research tells us that an unfair pay system disproportionately impacts women workers, especially because women make up most tipped workers, many in the food service industry.

In a March 2018 op-Ed for The New York Times, Saru Jayaraman, wrote that the tradition of tipping brought back to the states triggered an anti-tipping movement.

Tipping was called “practice undemocratic and un-American, arguing that employers, not customers, should pay their workers,”  Jayaraman, a University of California at Berkeley professor and co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, wrote.

“In turn, American restaurant owners and railway companies fought to keep the system on the grounds that tipping was a legitimate alternative to wages – especially since many of their workers were African-American, in many cases freed slaves whom those employers resented having to pay at all,” she concluded.

Even in the age of the “#MeToo” movement low tipped minimum wages are associated with worker oppression: women in tipped jobs suffer sexual harassment in states with a tipped minimum wage at twice the rate of their counterparts in states with one fair wage.

We can help defeat one instance of white supremacy and ensure working Pennsylvanians are paid fairly for their highly productive labor by raising the minimum wage.

Coalitions of advocates believe our state is finally on the precipice of legislating something closer to a living wage in Pennsylvania. It’s been a decade since the  General Assembly last increased the state minimum wage.

Pennsylvania’s own civil rights icon, and lead organizer for the 1963 March of Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Bayard Rustin once said, “The proof one truly believes is in action.”

Even staunch conservatives and moderates acknowledge that the current legislative session might finally be the session Pennsylvania proves that there’s dignity in all work by raising the wage.

If our legislators are on board with closing the gender pay gap and bringing economic justice to Pennsylvania’s hard-working electorate, it’s incumbent upon them to raise the wage.

Low-wage earners can’t wait any longer. And our local economy will be better for it.

Besides that, it’s the moral thing to do.

Capital-Star Opinion contributor Kadida Kenner is the director of campaigns for the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, which includes the We The People – PA project, a nonpartisan campaign that aims to make state government work for all of us. She writes from Harrisburg. Her work appears monthly.

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