By Ramona du Houx
On January 14, 2016, Mainers for Fair Wages submitted 75,000 verified signatures to the Maine Secretary of State to place an increase in the minimum wage on the November ballot, far more than the 61,123 required. Supporters marked the event with a rally in the State House Hall of Flags and remarks from more than a dozen Mainers from across the state, many of them making low wages themselves, who helped to collect the signatures.
“I’m a single mother and I know what it’s like to work low wage jobs and not be able to make ends meet. On $8 an hour it was impossible to afford basic necessities for my family like childcare, transportation and keeping a roof over our heads. While I was working full time I still needed to rely on food assistance to be able to feed my family,” said Melissa Stevens of Lewiston. “I joined the minimum wage campaign last fall to collect signatures to support this initiative and I am thrilled to be heretoday with so many community leaders from all walks of life as we submit far more than enough signatures to place this referendum on the ballot.”
Mainers for Fair Wages, a coalition including the Maine People's Alliance, Maine Small Business Coalition, and Maine AFL-CIO, launched the petition process for a citizen initiative to raise Maine's minimum wage in June. If passed, the initiative would increase the minimum wage to $9 per hour in 2017 and then by $1 a year until it reaches $12 by 2020. After that the wage would increase at the same rate as the cost of living. The initiative would also incrementally raise the sub-minimum tipped wage until it matches the minimum wage for all other workers by 2024.
Raising the state minimum wage would directly affect more than 130,000 low-wage workers in Maine, most of them women and many of them supporting families, according to calculations by the Economic Policy Institute.
“I am working as a tipped worker at a restaurant and a boost in my base wage would mean that I would not have to rely solely on tips in order to support myself,” said Esther Pew of Portland. “It’s hard to stick to a budget and be financially responsible when your wages can fluctuate drastically from one shift to the next. Getting a steady paycheck from my employer, and not just tips from my customers, would be a boost for me and thousands of tipped workers, mostly women, working in restaurants all over Maine.”
According to Mainers for Fair Wages, the submission of signatures marks the end of the first phase of their people-powered campaign and the beginning of the next.
“From the time I was 15, I’ve had to work a number of minimum wage jobs to help my family make ends meet. As the breadwinner, I was responsible, as a child, for making sure the heat stayed on through the winter, and unfortunately, I often failed in this endeavor,” said Tyler Williams, an employee of a big box store in Bangor. “Recently, I was forced to drop out of school because minimum wage, does not pay enough to get necessities, much less to pay tuition, too. This is the true tragedy of having such a low minimum wage. No one should have to choose between an education and a pittance. Hard work is supposed to give you the opportunity to pull yourself out of poverty, but $7.50 doesn’t help you out of poverty. It keeps you in it.”
The ballot question committee has already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from supporters giving contributions average just over $30 each and the campaign will seek to increase and strengthen that broad base of support in the months between now and November.
“When I was 26, I was diagnosed with aggressive stage four breast cancer. I had to leave the workforce for in order to deal with it and regain my health and strength. Since then, I have had a hard time finding dependable and livable wage work that allows me to make ends meet while still paying off huge amounts of medical debt. I currently work two part time jobs at very close to minimum wage, plus I help my parents with their business. With these three jobs, I still don’t make enough to get by,” said Brandy Staples of Phippsburg. “I heard similar stories all the time while I was collecting signatures to get this initiative on the ballot. That’s what motivated me to collected more than 600 signatures last summer and fall. Raising Maine’s minimum wage to $12/hour will help me get on my feet and will help so many others like me.”
Many businesses belive in raising the wage-
“When working Mainers make a decent living, they spend that extra money in our communities. It’s good for the whole economy, including my business,” said Adam Lee, Chairman of Lee Auto Malls. “In the last year and a half Lee Auto Malls has raised our starting wage from $9 to $10 and six months ago we raised it to $11 per hour. It’s the right thing and the smart thing to do.”
Every Democrat lawmaker in the State House and State Senate supports the measure-
"I was proud to join dozens of #FairWageME activists as they announced their submission of more than 80K signatures in support of $12/hr," said State Senator Justin Alfond.
There have been many measures lawmakers have put forward-everyone has been veoted by Gov. LePage.
“While big corporations and the top 1 percent continue to rake in money faster than they can count it, regular working folks struggle to get by,” said Sen. John Patrick. “No Mainer should work hard and plays by the rules only to earn poverty wages. There’s no question that the time has come to raise the minimum wage.”
The office of the Secretary of State now has 30 days to review the petitions before referring the initiative to the legislature, which can choose to enact it without change or allow it to be placed on the November ballot.