Minimum wage doesn’t cut it anymore

By Ned Cantwell: State columnist

It had to be a great Labor Day celebration for Carly Fiorina. Closer to home, Louis Caldera and Manny Aragon had a little more sizzle in their barbecue than most.

They are just three examples, members of the American Labor Force who were smart enough to figure out something about the workplace that eludes most working stiffs. You need to get yourself into a position where the bosses don’t like you and will pay a bundle to watch the door hit your butt.

Carly fell short of expectations at Hewlett-Packard and the board was so outraged it gave her only $21.1 million in severance pay and a pension of some $165,000 a year thereafter. H-P stockholders are paying for that.

Louis and Manny were ousted as university presidents at the University of New Mexico and Highland University, respectively, and each received sweet goodbye packages — not in the range of Carly’s, but nice, nonetheless. New Mexico taxpayers are footing that bill.

Look, as a guy whose hard labor in the last few years has mostly consisted of lifting the golf clubs from the pickup and strapping them on the cart, I have little cause to yap.

Good for Carly. Good for Louis and Manny. But let’s use the occasion to remember that way at the other end of the scale there are thousands and thousands of New Mexicans for whom Labor Day meant celebrating a job where a lot of the paycheck was spent on gas to get to the job.

They sell us hamburgers at the drive through, bottled water at the convenience store, tickets at the theater. They fill a wide variety of jobs that make our lives richer. And they’re broke. The $5.15 minimum has been around so long it remembers the day the only way to get through Tucumcari was Route 66. OK, that’s an exaggeration. But 5.15 has been around long enough to grow whiskers.

Just about everyone in New Mexico was actively promoting an increase in the minimum last legislative session. The governor had a plan. Legislators had various plans. You couldn’t traverse the Roundhouse without bumping into someone who was thumping his chest about what he was going to do for the working poor.

There were so many good ideas racing around Santa Fe they just plumb collided and knocked one another out before session’s end.

Come January, the issue will be hot. There will be the staunch opponents who will claim any increase will signal an end to small business as we know it. Arguing for a higher minimum will be those such as New Mexicans for a Fair Wage who will liberally quote Voices for Children economist Gerry Bradley.

Bradley will testify that a large percentage of the New Mexico workforce, more than twice the national average, earn the minimum. He will point to Santa Fe, whose minimum of $10.50 is the highest in the nation, as an economy that has benefited from the increase.

Bill Richardson was in the thick of it last year, but with all his power and influence, somehow wasn’t able to pull this one off. The stakes are higher come January. Big Bill has in recent weeks taken on Wal-Mart for its treatment of workers.

Caution. If you’re going to pile on Wal-Mart, you’d better take care of business in your own back yard. We’ll all be watching. Especially the minimum wage worker.

Wouldn’t it be nice, come next Labor Day, if he could afford to throw a few hot dogs on the grill?

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