By a majority vote, the Durham City Council voted on June 6 to amend the Durham City Manager’s recommended budget by allocating almost $650,000 for increasing pay to the City of Durham’s part-time workers. With this decision, all City of Durham workers – not only permanent full-time workers, but also part-time seasonal workers – will earn no less than the city’s living wage standard ($15.46/hour as of July 1, 2019).
This vote effectively raised the wages of over 200 city employees and signaled a new milestone in Durham’s living wage movement. With this decision, all primary public agencies in Durham – Durham Public Schools, Durham County, and the City of Durham – now pay every employee a living wage of at least $15/hour. Durham’s progressive community should be proud of this important milestone, but it’s worth noting how we got here and what’s ahead for the living wage movement.
While the final vote was 4-3, the only real controversy stemmed from whether to include additional funding for more police officers in the same budget amendment. As it was, all seven city council members expressed strong support for the wage increases. While deceptively simple in the end, the story of this important decision was many years in the making. In fact, it is a textbook example of an "inside: and "outside" strategy leading to important social change.
The "outside" strategy goes back to spring 2016, when a coalition of living wage supporters, including Raise Up/Fight for $15, the Durham Living Wage Project (a local initiative and project of the People’s Alliance Fund that certifies all local employers who pay at least the city’s established living wage), the People’s Alliance (PA), and UE 150, met with Durham City Council members Steve Schewel and Jillian Johnson. The groups requested that the city’s part-time seasonal employees be brought up to the city’s living wage standard. Over the course of that year’s budget cycle as well as the following two years, the Durham Living Wage Project, PA, and other living wage supporters continued to advocate for this provision. But, it failed to gain approval in the final budget. A big part of the challenge was the lack of a solid progressive majority on the council in 2016 and 2017.
However, with the fall municipal elections in 2017, the potential for progressive policy change was given a significant boost. Durham voters elected a progressive mayor in Steve Schewel and a solidly progressive majority on council (once Javiera Caballero was seated to fill Mayor Schewel unexpired council term). With a strong progressive majority on the council, advocates now had the potential for a winning "inside" strategy to support living wages. But a strong "inside" strategy would not be enough by itself. After the new council failed to bring all part-time seasonal workers to the city’s living wage standard in 2018, continued organizing on the outside led by PA and the Durham Living Wage Project, which helped to keep the issue alive and led to its eventual inclusion is this year’s budget.
So, what’s next for the living wage movement? There are three things that advocates can do in Durham, the region, and across the state:
#1: Keep the momentum going in Durham. Even though all public bodies in Durham now pay every employee at least $15, we can’t rest on our laurels. Workers in the bottom 20% of the income bracket have seen their wages stagnant since the 70s, while their inflation-adjusted incomes have actually gone down. Advocates need to keep the pressure on local elected officials to continue raising the wage floor.
One logical next step is to ensure that all of Durham’s public bodies have an appropriate wage escalator in place. That way, the living wage rate would adjust annually to account for inflation and wouldn’t require authorization in each annual budget cycle. Another important action is to support private and nonprofit sector employers who pay living wages. For a list of all local living wage employers, go to https://www.durhamlivingwage.org/.
#2: Launch a "Living Wage Project" in Wake County. Both Durham and Orange counties have living wage projects that certify private employers who voluntarily pay all employees the living wage established by their local governments. In a state whose current policy environment is hostile to living wages and prevents local communities from passing a local minimum wage without approval from the General Assembly, it’s critical to leverage as much support as possible from the private sector. Together, Durham and Orange counties have recognized over 350 employers with more than 14,000 workers as "living wage certified." By launching a living wage certification project in Wake County, we can move one step closer to the Triangle becoming the nation’s first living wage region.
#3: Support the Raising Wages NC campaign. In a right-to-work state with a large share of low-wage jobs (NC ranks 43rd nationally with almost 30% of all jobs classified as low-wage), the most effective reform would be to raise the state’s minimum wage above the paltry $7.25 level. The Raising Wages NC campaign seeks to raise North Carolina’s minimum wage to $15 in five years. To find out more, go to https://raisingwagesnc.org/.