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Commentary: The real minimum wage saga

by on March 01, 2014 10:39 AM

I once earned the minimum wage not because I needed an entry-level job, but because I needed the money. It was a minimum-wage job or a begging bowl and the street.

While I learned some interesting — and some disagreeable — things about life at the bottom, I never met anyone who was there because they were entering the workforce. Instead, they were a community of the hapless; some of them on their way down, but more of them just on their way to nowhere.

Each day, they were hired through Manpower and were sent where they were needed, if there was work that day. The hiring hall was not a place of despair but of resignation. If you were considered a good worker, you would get a semi-permanent assignment. But as with most temp work, employers were prohibited from offering you a permanent job.

It was the winter of 1965, and the minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. By the time deductions were taken, take-home pay was about $1 an hour, which was not enough to support a family, or even to think of little things like vacations or getting one’s teeth fixed.

Teeth stand out in my memory for two reasons. First, because my co-workers had visibly terrible teeth. Second because I once bused a table at the Horn & Hardart automat on 42nd Street in New York, and a customer had put her false teeth on a dirty plate and I had whisked it away.

About an hour later — people who ate at the automat did so because you could sit for an hour without being bothered — she discovered her loss. The most awful crying and begging resulted. Over and over, she cried, “I’ll never have teeth again. I can’t afford new teeth.”

I went to the manager, who showed me Dumpsters piled high with that day’s garbage. He was a decent man and we tried to find the woman’s teeth. It was hopeless. Utterly hopeless. Her teeth were irretrievably lost and she went out into the night shrieking. She would never have teeth again.

I got back into newspapering and moved on and up. Over the decades, though, I have retained an affinity for those who draw the minimum wage, and a certain knowledge that it needs to be higher and linked to the cost of living.

Even so, I think the minimum wage is a two-edged sword. I think in times of near full employment, employers use it to hold down what they otherwise would have to pay. But I also think that without it, there would be terrible exploitation at the bottom — sweatshops and the like.

I think the minimum wage is part of the social network where those who have not yet risen and those who have fallen in life can find precarious purchase.

Sadly the minimum-wage job is under threat, not because the Obama administration wants to raise it to $10.10, but because of the computerization of the workplace. Simply, people will be replaced with computer-driven devices no matter what the minimum wage is.

A great gale of change is sweeping through the workplace. We get our money from machines; increasingly, we check ourselves out of the supermarket and the drugstore; we buy our airline and train tickets online.

The low-wage job as well as some better ones are going. Fast-food restaurants have introduced computerized ordering. Inexorably, business is committed to replacing workers with automation. That is not new.

What is new is that all the jobs in the service industries, which were considered exempt from automation, are now going the way of the coal miner, the stevedore and more than half the people it used to take to make a car or a steel beam.

We are having the wrong discussion over the minimum wage. We need to talk about work; all work, including work for those at the bottom — those who cannot even think about dental work, vacations or college.

Raising the minimum wage will not drive employers to replace workers with machines. That has already reached flood stage.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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