Red Emma's picks a side in Baltimore's minimum wage debate

Op-ed: Red Emma's picks a side in Baltimore's minimum wage debate

As the fight for a $15 local minimum wage heats up in Baltimore, we're likely to see two groups facing off over the proposed bill. On the one hand, workers whose wages have simply failed to keep pace with rising costs of living will be generally for it, especially if they are trying to stay afloat working for the current $8.25 minimum wage (or even the new $10.10 state minimum that's slowly being phased in). On the other hand, we'll likely see some small business owners concerned about their ability to stay in the black trying to stop it. Our business, Red Emma's, has a somewhat unique position in this battle: As a worker cooperative, a business owned entirely by its own employees, we're on both sides at once.

The conversations we had around whether to endorse the fight for $15 here in Baltimore resembled many of the conversations we have at our monthly cooperative business meetings. We are constantly trying to balance our perspective as workers, working democratically to create the best jobs for ourselves we can, with our perspective as small business owners with 20 equal partners, all trying to keep our eyes on the bottom line and the company in the black. So while we recognize that a substantial raise in the minimum wage is long overdue, and that the benefits of $15 per hour — increased local purchasing power and increased financial security for the 98,000 workers the Economic Policy Institute estimates will see a raise — will benefit the entire local economy, we're also extremely sensitive to the concerns that many small business owners have begun to voice.

A large multinational corporation like Walmart, with billions in profits and access to huge amounts of working capital, can easily find a way to absorb extra labor costs, but we know firsthand just how hard it is to keep a small business afloat. If you told us that we had to raise our starting wage to $15 an hour tomorrow, our reaction would be one of abject terror; there's no way we'd be able to do it, and it's not because the boss is pocketing the money that should be going to the workers — after all, we don't have a boss. It's because small businesses like our own are often skating by on the thinnest margins of profitability, without deep reserves to burn through when expenses rise.

But despite our uncertainty and trepidation as business owners, Red Emma's is excited that the fight for $15 has come to Baltimore, and we are looking forward to doing whatever we can to support the campaign for a higher city-wide minimum wage. We believe that working people deserve work at a living wage with dignity. That's why, for instance, we are, despite our lack of bosses, a union workplace, organized with the Industrial Workers of the World, which pioneered the kind of low-wage food service organizing that's grown into a national movement. And that's why we don't make our food service workers scramble for tips but guarantee them a wage that currently starts at $11 per hour with full health care benefits for all full time workers. The bill we're supporting would start to make tipping obsolete across the city, and, by raising the purchasing power of a huge swath of the city's workers, help us do right by our own workers while still keeping our prices as affordable as possible.

We know that it's not 100 percent certain that we'll be able to afford higher wages. But we also know that nothing in running a small business is certain, and we think the benefits of a more equal economy far outweigh the risks. There are some things we really like about the bill, among them: that the wage ramps up gradually over a few years before hitting $15, and the more a business already takes the high road by paying a wage above the current minimum, the more time it has to adjust to the new minimum. There are other things we hope can be addressed through additional legislative commitments; in particular, smaller, locally-owned businesses with slimmer margins and smaller reserves might have a harder time meeting the new minimum than giant multinational corporations enjoying big tax breaks and big profits, so we hope that some of the extra income tax money Baltimore City will see with higher wages can be earmarked to support the kind of local, diverse businesses that make for a thriving local economy.

But the fundamentals of the bill are simple and solid: it should be illegal to employ someone at a poverty wage. As a business that cares about the people of this city, we are proud to support the fight for $15.

The authors are all worker-owners of the Red Emma's cooperative; they may be reached at info@redemmas.org.

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