Metro Councilman Jim Gotto has the right idea.
When the outspoken conservative stood at Tuesday’s meeting to offer his two cents on the bill that included a so-called living wage provision, he served up a pointed critique.
“I’ve heard it said, ‘Oh, this only affects a few employees,’ ”Gotto said. “Well, if it only affects a few, why are we taking this step? I submit to you, I think this is the first step. The next step will be to require all vendors that do business with Metro government to pay the living wage. The next step after that will be to require all businesses operating in Davidson County to pay the living wage.”
And the next step after that, of course, is a series of Metro-sponsored “contemplation camps” in which contractors and vendors not willing to pay a living wage will be imprisoned and force-fed Soviet-era agitprop until they agree Marx was actually right about one thing: The worker should be the one using the means of production, not the other way around.
Naturally, Gotto put forth this scenario to stir up some fear and loathing, dropping a heavy thumb on the panic button of every tea partier this side of Williamson County. But this is more than just a half-baked Ayn Rand plot against Nashville.
At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry slipped the so-called living wage plan into an existing Dean administration bill that cut the ongoing, gradual pay-increase policy for Metro workers in favor of a one-time 2 percent bump. Metro’s finance director, Richard Riebeling, has said the government doesn’t have the money to keep up with regular pay raises.
In shifting attention away from that ugliness, the administration touted the 2 percent “bonus,” and Barry put forth language that would move the bottom-line wage for a city worker from $7.72 an hour to $10.77 an hour. They stamped the whole thing “living wage” and stepped forward into the glory-light of progressivism, leaving Gotto and a few others in the background, still raging against the machine.
Sure, it may have been an invidious approach, and it has certainly drawn the ire of Councilwoman Emily Evans, the body’s economic expert, and several others.
Regardless, it was the right thing to do.
As of last week, there were only 14 people on the city’s payroll earning less than $10.77 an hour. For Metro, it was $7,300 added to a $1.52 billion budget for next year. For those workers, it was a 35-cent pay raise, which amounts to a little more than $700 a year in extra bread — maybe a month’s rent.
And, like Gotto said, it’s a portentous bill.
Included in the legislation was language that encourages non-civil service agencies like Metro General Hospital to adopt the same living wage. Such agencies have their own boards of directors and, although ostensibly part of city government, would have to adopt such a policy independently. If the hospital and other agencies did that, 150 more positions would be covered under the so-called living wage, according to figures provided by Metro.
Still, to put it in perspective, that’s an annual take of less than $23,000. In Nashville, that’s just about bare minimum to get by, according to a Vanderbilt University study of living wage.
If you believe the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., living wages that stretch across a municipality’s portfolio — that is, from city workers to contractors and vendors — don’t have a negative effect on business.
“A detailed survey of 20 cities found that the actual budgetary effect of living wage laws had been consistently overestimated by city administrators; actual costs tended to be less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall budget,” Jeff Chapman and Jeff Thompson wrote in a 2006 report, in which the authors also revealed that the costs of contracts increased more slowly than inflation in cities with living wages.
Of course, that doesn’t fit with the “socialism” narrative that will no doubt arise in opposition when someone realizes there are more reasons to expand Nashville’s nascent living-wage initiative than not and starts to push broader legislation. It happened once before, in the early 2000s, and was soundly defeated, in part with such anti-business rhetoric.
“The reason to do this is … that Metro government should never be in the business of creating poverty for its workers,” Barry told me.
Neither should any other employer.