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Published: Saturday, 7/29/2006

Ohio can lead on minimum wage

BY ROSE RUSSELL

IF YOU are a registered voter who agrees that it's absurd that Ohio's minimum wage is only $5.15 an hour, you will want to sign a petition to put the issue on the November ballot to try to boost the state minimum wage to $6.85 an hour.

Reasonable people will concur that it's unrealistic to expect anyone to maintain even a semblance of a basic, let alone decent, standard of living earning $5.15 hourly. That won't buy two gallons of gas, even before taxes and other deductions are subtracted from a minimum-wage earner's paycheck.

But believe it or not, $5.15 an hour is all thousands of Ohioans who are heads of households earn to pay for housing and to feed their families. And we haven't even begun to talk about how much electricity costs or what it costs to keep warm enough in the winter so nobody in the family gets sick, or to buy gasoline that's topped $3 a gallon.

Petitions containing 322,000 valid signatures must be turned in to the Ohio Secretary of State by Aug. 9 for the issue to go on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Considering the hostile climate that Ken Blackwell, this secretary of state, has created by making his office less "user friendly" in the process of registering to vote, voting, and for volunteers turning in new voter registrations, groups obtaining valid voters' signatures must make sure that every I is dotted and every T crossed to avoid an excuse for the Republican secretary to set up more roadblocks that could to keep the issue off the ballot.

Ohio's $5.15 minimum wage is the same as the federal minimum wage, which could rise to $7.25 within three years in light of possible new congressional action. Ohio's increase was not due to the goodness of the Republican-controlled legislature. Some might be shocked to know that when Ohio's minimum wage was increased in March that it had been at $4.25 for the previous 15 years.

Ohio Democrats were dumbfounded when House Republicans at the last moment tucked the increase into a bill reducing workers' compensation benefits for injured workers. And, although the bill passed, it put Democrats on the spot. They voted against it to keep from reducing workers' compensation benefits for some injured workers.

The GOP's intent, obviously, was to skew the Democrats' intentions. The Democrats want to see the state increase its minimum wage to $6.85 an hour, but they voted against a wage increase in March only because it was attached to the workers' comp measure.

A Columbus Democrat, Rep. Dan Stewart, aptly described the actions of his colleagues across the aisle when he said it was akin to "putting lipstick on a pig, to put a weak minimum-wage effort in there to try to disguise this issue."

For clarity on the GOP's political finagling of the issue, know that the campaign to raise Ohio's minimum wage to $6.85 was in the works long before the GOP's sinister doings in March.

Raising that wage in Ohio could prompt other states to increase their minimum wage, too. Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said during a Columbus visit earlier this month that the campaign won't end when Ohio is victorious. "It will continue next year and the next year and the next year until we are living in a United States of America where every single American is treated the same way," he said.

Meanwhile, the organizations that support putting the measure on the November ballot include unions and religious groups.

Ohio's AFL-CIO is working to obtain the necessary number of valid signatures, and the national faith community that's working against poverty, Let Justice Roll, as well as Toledo Jobs with Justice, and the local ecumenical church organization, Toledo Area Ministries, are for it, too. They view increasing the minimum wage as spiritually and morally responsible action. Scripture mandates fair pay for workers and underscores their right to work with honor.

"We continue to see an increased demand in the community for food, which is a pretty good indicator of the problem," TAM's executive director, the Rev. Larry Clark, said early this month. "We believe people need to understand that one of the reasons they're collecting more for [food] and why more people are coming to their churches' doors seeking assistance is because of the fundamental problem that wages are too low for our lowest-paid workers."

Don't merely say "amen" to that. Talk is cheap. If you are a registered voter, sign a petition. Then, when the issue is on the ballot, support it. If you are not registered to vote, do so now. And take identification to the polls when you go vote.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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