With a stroke of his pen Governor Chafee signed into law the 2015 budget, marking what House Speaker Nick Mattiello endlessly referred to as a new era in regional “competitiveness” for Rhode Island. Simultaneously the Governor dashed the hopes of Providence hotel workers who were cavalierly targeted by a measure inserted into the bill that eliminated the ability of cities and towns in the state from deciding their own minimum wages.
While the governor, Senate President Paiva-Weed and the Speaker were inside the State House giving self-congratulatory speeches about the bold new budget and the bold new economic direction the state was taking, outside the State House Mirjaam Parada, Yilenny Ferrares, Santa Brito and Shelby Maldonado continued their hunger strike, hoping to convince the governor to veto.
Were the efforts of the hotel workers and the hunger strikers ultimately futile? I think not. Both houses of the General Assembly just passed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $9 in 2015. Given the priorities of the Mattiello House this year, in which lowering estate and corporate taxes was seen as more important than helping the economically vulnerable, and given the open hostility some legislators had evinced towards the idea of raising the minimum wage so soon after the last increase, the $9 minimum wage is an important victory.
It was only the efforts of the hotel workers and the hunger strikers that shamed members of the General Assembly into doing something akin to the right thing for minimum wage workers. In fact, I heard rumors yesterday that the only way the Senate would approve Mattiello’s corporate kiss-up budget was for the Speaker to see his way clear to a slight increase in the minimum wage, but of course the exact mechanisms by which the legislature conducts its business are always hidden from public view.
Even as the Mattiello budget was signed into law and the $9 minimum wage was passed in Rhode Island, the Massachusetts legislature, in a move lauded by President Obama, acted to raise its state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour. (Note to Rhode Islanders: This is how real Democrats behave.) For all of Speaker Mattiello’s talk of being regionally competitive, the failure to set our state’s minimum wage to a similar standard demonstrates a lack of economic understanding and leadership. Following the economic logic on evidence at the State House, one should now expect the best minimum wage workers in Pawtucket and East Providence to cross the border into Massachusetts for the $11 an hour fast food jobs, leaving the $9 jobs here in Rhode Island to the second tier workers. The extra $80 a week will be worth the extra five to ten minutes it will take to get to work in the morning for most workers.
The hotel workers here in Providence were fighting for $15. They fought and won here in the city, only to have the state come in and snatch victory from their grasp. At that point, the fight switched from a battle for fair wages to a battle for access to democracy. It was only the efforts of the hunger strikers and their supporters, calling attention to the miscarriage of justice and the abuse of legislative power, that shamed the General Assembly into doing anything to alleviate the suffering of the most economically vulnerable.
Mirjaam Parada, Yilenny Ferrares, Santa Brito and Shelby Maldonado are heroes of democracy, bravely showing the way forward in the fight for economic justice in Rhode Island. But more than that, they are just good, kindhearted people, putting the concerns of others ahead of their own. I am better for knowing them, and glad there are such people working to make the world a better place.
Their hunger strike is over, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with next.