LAWRENCE, Mass. — In this city, where a century ago workers staged one of America's greatest industrial strikes, people again are arguing about a living wage — but not the minimum wage bill President Obama proposed in his State of the Union message.
Massachusetts has its own minimum: 75 cents above the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. And now the state Legislature is considering whether to raise the minimum wage over the next three years to $11, which would be among the highest in the nation.
With legislative stalemate in Washington and increasing concern nationwide over income inequality, the minimum wage fight is shifting to states such as Massachusetts, which in 1912 became the first to enact minimum wage legislation.
Lawrence, the site in that year of the epic "Bread and Roses'' textile strike, is today the state's poorest city. Nearly three-quarters of its 76,000 residents are Hispanic, and more than a third are foreign-born.
With many small businesses and about 9,500 hourly workers in the region who make between $8 and $10.50, according to an analysis by an advocacy group, Lawrence illustrates what's at stake in the wage debate.
George Bonfiglio and his wife, Sheila, own the Three Dogz Diner, which overlooks the Great Stone Dam, built between 1845 and 1848. The dam and its canals produced the power that helped make Lawrence's mills the world's greatest source of worsted wool — 2 million yards a week.
He's a former union carpenter sidelined by the recession. She used to work for a bank. Four years ago, they started the restaurant, Sheila says, because "we figured people always have to eat.'' Around here, that often means "chicken barb'' — seasoned pulled turkey and chicken with lettuce and mayo on a grilled roll.
George, 60, says a raise in the minimum wage would force them to reduce their three employees' hours, or worse — "shut this place down and just do takeout.'' Thinking about it makes him mad: "It's going to end up hurting the people it's supposed to help.''
He means people like Fernando de la Cruz, a 38-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic who works for the legal minimum $8 an hour as a grocery store stock clerk.
De la Cruz, who says that he and his wife, Mabel, make about $2,000 a month between them — more than half of which goes to rent, utilities and gas for their 14-year-old Chevy Malibu — sees the issue differently.
A raise in the minimum wage, he says, is the only way he can begin to save for his three daughters' educations, or buy a computer so they won't have to walk to the library in all kinds of weather to do homework.
"When those who do the work share the benefits,'' he says in Spanish, through an interpreter, "that is democracy.''
Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already have minimum wages higher than the federal one. Obama wants to increase the federal rate for all workers to $10.10 an hour over two years, and then index it to inflation.
Republican opposition in Congress — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls the Democrats' wage bill "a measure to destroy jobs'' — makes that unlikely.
In the absence of federal action, at least 20states are considering their own minimum wage increases, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Already this year, minimum wage workers in five states have had raises authorized last year. In another ten, smaller increases linked to inflation have taken or will take effect.
Raising the minimum wage is politically popular — "like motherhood and apple pie,'' says Ralph Wilbur, 81, who runs a printing business in Lawrence. "Who doesn't want a raise?'' More than seven in 10 U.S. voters support an increase, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
On the same night as the State of the Union, Massachusetts' Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, got the biggest applause of his State of the Commonwealth speech when, alluding to the minimum wage, he asked business people to "consider whether you could live on it."
A bill to increase the minimum to $11 already has passed the state Senate; its House of Representatives will consider a similar measure this year. If that fails, a coalition of unions and advocacy groups say they'll try to get the issue on the ballot in November.
Proponents say the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with inflation and cannot support a household above the poverty line. Opponents say that relatively few such workers are adults supporting families, and that such jobs should not be regarded as anything other than steppingstones until workers get more skills or experience.
Above all, opponents of a higher wage insist it would mean fewer jobs, and less work for those with jobs.
Sheri Cann's family owns The Coffee Cann, a deli on the site of what was the nation's largest textile mill. The top of its long communal table is made of reclaimed mill wood.
She says a minimum wage increase could force her to cut employees' hours. Can she simply pass the cost on to customers? She bristles: "Are you going to pay $4 for a muffin? And who are you going to be upset with? Me — not Mr. President or Deval Patrick.''
Who exactly would benefit? Two viewpoints:
• Steve Reppucci is a former computer software designer who 10 years ago co-founded Mad Maggie's Ice Cream shop (Maggie's his wife). He says most of his 15 to 25 employees (the number depends on the season) are students who work part time to cover incidental costs. They don't see the big picture, he says. "When I tell them about (the proposed rise in) the minimum wage, they say, 'Oh, that's great!' They don't think about what it'll be like when they're one of three people on a shift in the summer, instead of five.''
• Yaritza Perez is a sophomore at Northern Essex Community College who works part time as an $8-an-hour fitting room attendant at a discount clothes store. She and her twin sister are the first members of their family to attend college, and she's saving for her move next fall to a four-year school. Because her parents also work at low-wage jobs and can't help with school costs, "I can use a raise,'' she says, "and it would benefit our city.''
But neither is an absolutist. Reppucci says he'd favor a higher minimum wage for adult heads of households; Perez worries that a hike would lead to higher prices for everyone.
That ambivalence is common here. If national Democrats are sure the minimum wage is a winner for them politically, Lawrencians aren't as sure about it economically.
That could be because another state law, 102 years ago, unexpectedly precipitated the greatest and worst event in the city's history.
'BREAD AND ROSES, TOO'
In 1912, women and children worked up to 56 hours a week in the Lawrence mills. Workers routinely were maimed by equipment operated at top speed, pushed to work faster and paid a relative pittance — between $8 and $9 a week.
When the state Legislature passed a law reducing the workweek for women and children to 54 hours, mill owners cut wages accordingly, while speeding up production. Some workers walked out, and soon the strike spread to 20,000 others.
The Bread and Roses strike (so-called because, it was later said, the workers wanted "bread and roses, too'' — sustenance and human dignity) lasted eight weeks. The strikers were immigrants from many nations who spoke more than a dozen languages; almost half were women, who could not even vote. The mill owners were backed by local police and the state militia.
But the strikers won, in part because they turned the conditions in the Lawrence mills into a national scandal that caught the attention of Congress and first lady Helen Taft. They got a wage increase, the right to overtime pay and a promise of no reprisals against strike leaders.
But the victory proved temporary, if not illusory.
The radical union that organized the strike, the International Workers of the World, lost its hold in Lawrence amid a backlash by mill owners, churches and local politicians. In the "God and Country" parade seven months after the strike, tens of thousands of demonstrators scorned the strikers for preaching atheism and class hatred.
Also, the strike's prime accomplishment — higher wages for textile workers — was a factor in the industry's subsequent demise in the region. In the 1920s, companies began relocating to the lower-wage, union-free South. Today, only a handful of small businesses make cloth or clothes in Lawrence.
The 1912 strike came to be something of a shameful, suppressed memory for workers and their families, neither celebrated in public nor mentioned in school.
The strikers' legacy was rediscovered and re-emphasized in the 1980s, and today their struggles and achievements are a source of local pride. There's a Strikers' Monument on the commons, and tourists come to see the brick mills from which the strikers walked.
The minimum wage issue is another link to the past, says Robert Forrant, a University of Massachusetts-Lowell labor historian: "This is a debate that's gone on for a hundred years.''