MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN—Brad Schimel, the Republican candidate for Attorney General, told supporters at a Milwaukee County Republicans party that he’s tired of the contentious statewide debate over the minimum wage.
“I want every one of our neighbors to have a job again, a well-paid job, so we don’t have to argue about minimum wage for someone working at Burger King,” he said. “Let’s get them a real job.”
This November, residents of 13 different Wisconsin counties will also vote on whether to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. The votes will take place both in big urban centers like Milwaukee and Madison, and smaller and more rural areas like Eau Claire. These “advisory referenda” are not binding, but they could put political pressure on local city councils or the next governor to raise the wage.
“We expect that no matter who is elected on November 4th, they’re going to do something about the poverty wage crisis in our communities,” said Jennifer Epps-Addison with Wisconsin Jobs Now. “Nobody is trying to get rich here, but you want to make enough that you’re not on public assistance.”
Epps-Addison spoke to ThinkProgress as dozens of low-wage workers and local activists gathered at her office on the north side of town before setting out in the rain to knock on doors and canvass for the Democratic candidate for governor, Mary Burke. One of them was McDonalds worker Marielle Crowley, a leader in Milwaukee’s Fight for 15 movement. He makes $8.75 an hour, with few raises over the nearly six years he has worked there. “10 cents here, 5 cents there,” he told ThinkProgress. “It’s pretty hard to survive.”
Crowley dreams of opening his own car repair garage. He studied auto mechanics for one year but had to drop out before completing the course because he couldn’t afford the tuition. He said studying while working to support himself and his mother was like having two full-time jobs, and something “had to give.”
“You want to have a better life, but you’re stuck in this life. How can you get ahead?” he said, exhaling roughly. “I don’t want to be at McDonalds the rest of my life.”
The state currently has a lower wage than most of its midwest neighbors, even those with Republican governors.
Under Wisconsin law, all workers must be paid a living wage. The statute mandates that the wage must “permit an employee to maintain herself or himself in minimum comfort, decency, physical and moral well-being,” and allows workers to bring complaints to the Governor’s office if they feel their pay is insufficient. In response to the complaints, the governor can unilaterally raise the minimum wage or appoint a “wage council” to study whether the current minimum is enough. Or he or she can do what Walker did: throw out the worker petitions and declare $7.25 an hour is a living wage.
Crowley told ThinkProgress he’s been throwing all his spare time and energy into electing a governor “who can be held accountable” to workers, because under the Walker Administration everyone in his community “is poor, and they’re getting poorer.”
Other workers and organizers, including Milwaukee Area Labor Council vice president Annie Wacker, shared similar impressions of the impact of Walker’s policies. “People are losing their homes, losing their cars. With people making minimum wage, there’s a lot less tax money going into the local economy, to feed it,” she said. “It’s had a really awful impact, and not just monetarily. It’s been sad.”
Since denying complaints earlier this month, Walker has received dozens more. One, from Milwaukee line food server Denise Merchant, says she can’t afford her diabetes tests on a minimum wage salary.
“My doctor told me that I am to check my blood twice a day. It’s been a month since I last tested my blood,” she wrote. “That is putting my life at risk.”
Another complaint filed by Milwaukee grocery store clerk Marvin Mayes reads: “Sometimes I feel like I am a slave to my low wages. The cost of everything, food, clothes, medical and rent go up, but my wages remain the same.” Others filed by full-time minimum wage employees detailed regular reliance on food pantries, pawning personal possessions, and struggling to afford bus fare to get to and from work.
With Governor Walker rejecting a raise and questioning the “purpose” of having a minimum wage at all, workers like Crowley and Wacker have thrown their support behind Burke—who has declared her support for raising the wage to $10.10 an hour over two years. The race is currently tied.
“I’m excited and optimistic in ways I never thought I’d be a few years ago,” Wacker told ThinkProgress. “I have hope and confidence that we can do this, and that’s not something I’ve felt for a long time.”