Article and photos by Ramona du Houx
Bangor City Councilor Joe Baldacci hosted his first spaghetti dinner/minimum wage forum on June 26th in Lewiston. He and guests addressed a packed room of over 150 people as attendees finished their spaghetti made from the famous Baldacci family’s recipe.
Speakers addressed the economic situation faced by those earning a minimum wage — and the need for action. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is worth $2 less today than it was in 1968, when adjusted for inflation.
Economist Garrett Martin of the Maine Center of Economic Policy analyzed how the economic situation coming out of the Great Recession has led to low-wage earners truly being left behind. He explained that a minimum wage raise would lift everyone up.
“Don’t believe them when they tell you raising the wage costs jobs … It actually boosts the economy. The last time the federal government raised the minimum wage, over $5.5 billion more was spent,” said Martin. “And jobs were created.”
Someone working 40 hours a week at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 would earn only $15,080 every year before taxes — $4,610 below the federal poverty level.
“Today the minimum wage is lower in purchasing power than it was 45 years ago,” said former Bangor Mayor Joe Baldacci. “It’s about giving people a hand — not a hand-out. The banks got bailed out, but the middle classes didn’t. We can’t balance governmental budgets, year after year, on the backs of the poor and the middle class.”
Auburn State Rep. Gina Melargno (photo above) said only one of the eight minimum-wage-increase bills submitted by Democrats in the Legislature made it out of committee. And the State Senate Republicans killed that measure.
“For lots of Republicans, their main priority is their businesses-corporation commitment. They don’t seem to understand that if we workers don’t have any money, we’re not going to be able to patronage these businesses,” said Melargno.
But in the wider community of Maine the issue is bipartisan.
“About 75 percent of our voting constituency wants a minimum-wage raise — and that includes voting Republicans,” said Melargno, whose proposed bill, An Act To Raise the Minimum Wage and Index It to the National Average Wage, became the template for the Maine People's Alliance statewide referendum to gradually increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour. The EPI estimates that gradually increasing the wage to $12 per hour would give over 120,000 Maine workers — more than a fifth of the state’s workforce — a raise.
MPA members were at the dinner collecting signatures for the referendum’s petition. “This idea of taking it into our own hands is exciting,” added Melargno.
Poet Tim Richardson, who attended the dinner, said he was trained as a machinist in the 1970s and always felt he’d be able to earn a living off that trade at a minimum wage. For back then, it was a livable wage. “Not anymore,” he said. “I think the economy would be better if people had more money in their pockets, so they could spend something locally. I’d like to see it at $15 per hour, more like it was in the 70’s, when people could make a living with a livable minimum. That’s gone. That’s a part of what's weakening us as a nation.”
An Alliance for a Just Society estimates that $15.82 an hour would be a livable wage. Maine’s current minimum wage of $7.50 forces far too many families onto welfare rolls, and the need for federally subsidized health care.
“I have been in the health-care industry for over 35 years, and I have seen study after study that has verified that for those in the vulnerable wage bracket, their health outcomes are not as favorable as those who have the means to seek high-quality health care. And that raises this issue of the minimum wage to more than an economic problem — it is also a health problem,” said Donato Tramuto, healthcare activist and entrepreneur.
Economist Garrett Martin of the Maine Center of Economic Policy analyzed how the economic situation coming out of the Great Recession
About $400 in proceeds from the dinner instantly turned into over $800, as Tramuto announced that his organization would graciously match the funds, which will be donated to New Beginnings of Lewiston. The local nonprofit helps 700 homeless young people and families in crisis work toward a brighter future every year.
“Health care is a basic human right, and so is a minimum wage,” added Tramuto.
The issue affects women workers more then men in Maine. According to former State Senator Eloise Vitelli, “One in seven people earning the minimum wage are women, in Maine.”
That in turn impacts children. "Raising the minimum wage is critical to decreasing childhood poverty,” said Jim Wellehan, owner of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes.
This spaghetti dinner was the first of a series that Baldacci will be hosting across the state to generate support and awareness for raising the minimum wage. There will be upcoming events in Bangor, Portland, Millinocket, and Presque Isle. Baldacci has already held a town forum in Bangor on the issue. Last February he proposed a Bangor ordinance that would incrementally increase the minimum wage in the city, beginning with $8.25 per hour in 2016 to $9 per hour in 2017 and advancing to $9.75 in 2018.
For more information please visit raisemewage.com.