The Elusive Minimum Wage

by DAVID MACARAY

If you happen to follow the American and international labor scene, and want to kill a leisurely hour, an entertaining way of doing that is to visit the Department of Labor’s (DOL) official website.  It offers a wide selection of labor tidbits, explanations of bureaucratic procedures, helpful tips, advice for retirees and disabled workers, and summaries of the DOL’s most recent compliance victories.

Ever since Hilda Solis (President Obama’s first-term Secretary of Labor) resigned the position, Seth Harris has been filling in as acting Secretary, pending confirmation of Thomas Perez, President Obama’s hand-picked nominee.  If this were the 1970s, Perez’s confirmation would be a foregone conclusion.  After all, the man has exemplary qualifications; there would be no reason to oppose him.

But because the right-wing has so effectively hijacked the political middle, and has built up an impressive head of steam, the Perez hearings could get very ugly.  In fact, the only thing standing in the way of an aggressive, full-court press by congressional Republicans is their understandable fear of alienating the Latino vote in 2016.  If they get too nasty with Mr. Perez, 2016 could turn out to be Romney Redux.

Bearing the Department of Labor’s official seal, the DOL site is a combination of office newsletter (chatty, helpful, people-oriented) and standard business “mission statement” (a no-nonsense reminder of what the organization is all about).  One of its features is an explanation of the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), the law that established the federal minimum wage (which, today, stands at $7.25 per hour).

For decades there has been an outcry from conservative lobbyists (e.g., U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, etc.) and their Republican minions, demanding repeal of the minimum wage, arguing that it impedes growth, contributes to unemployment, and results in hundreds of small businesses—the backbone of the U.S. economy—going belly-up each year.

While that claim makes for good propaganda, the numbers don’t support it.

Besides the fact that $7.25 is a pitifully meager wage to pay your employees (if you honestly cannot afford $7.25/hour, should you really own a business?)—and besides the fact that the federal minimum doesn’t increase automatically with the cost of living, but requires an act of Congress to raise it even 10-cents (and we know how malleable Congress has been lately)—the number of exemptions to the federal minimum wage is positively staggering.

It’s true.  Some of those exemptions:  workers with disabilities (any disability), full-time students, apprentices, companions for the elderly, farmworkers, fishermen, newspaper deliverers, waiters and waitresses, and switchboard operators.  As for the tiny businesses those lobbyists are trying to “protect,” the minimum wage exempts any enterprise with less than $500,000 per year in sales or business.  These are only some of the exemptions.  Check out the website for more.

Another interesting exemption:  It’s legal to pay a person $4.25/hour for a period of 90 days, provided that person is younger than age 20.  Unfortunately, labor unions have long been aware of unscrupulous companies who hire recent high school grads (age 18-19), keep them on the payroll for 90 days, then replace with them with a new batch of 18-year olds.  It’s a sweet loophole.  It’s legal.  It’s free enterprise.

My one beef with the DOL is its unwillingness to give credit to the only institutional organization in the history of the U.S. dedicated exclusively to improving the economic lives of working people—i.e., labor unions.  Indeed, you hardly ever see any mention of unions on their website.

While the DOL is clearly pro-worker, pro-disabled, pro-minority, and pro-international rights, they’re terrified of the political backlash that would likely result were they to give a well-earned shout-out to organized labor.  Say again?  Bureaucrats lacking the moral courage to speak the truth to power?  Shocking.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union rep. Macaray’s article on the history of Major League Baseball’s powerful players’ union appears in the May issue of CounterPunch magazine.  dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal