BRIDGETON — The city’s sizable number of low-income workers, distressed economy and Democratic politics often don’t play in its favor, but on Wednesday those elements made it an ideal host for the start of a campaign to enshrine a minimum wage formula in New Jersey’s constitution.
It was a rare moment in a statewide spotlight for Bridgeton. Besides its own problems, the city is the government seat for a county with the worst or next-to-worst standings in New Jersey in almost every quality-of-life standard. The sad, familiar facts weren’t glossed over, either by visiting speakers or an otherwise ebullient Mayor Albert Kelly.
“We wanted to come down here for a reason,” said state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat whose district includes the city. “This is where the people are. Sometimes forgotten — but we’re here. And we have an important event going on here that we need everyone to understand about: raising the minimum wage. Getting an opportunity to vote to give yourself a raise.
“Understand this,” Sweeney added. “If we don’t do this, you’re never going to have an opportunity again.”
The Union Baptist Temple Church on South Pine Street opened its basement for the event. The audience, some present for a Bible study session, generally seemed to embrace the minimum wage issue. It was especially vocal about the presence of Newark mayor and U.S. Senate candidate Cory Booker.
“I love the fact that I’m standing in a church basement,” said Booker, who mixed black history, Scripture and political issues in a speech that wound up the congregation. “Because if it wasn’t for church basements, I wouldn’t be here today. C’mon now. It was church basements that they planned and plotted to fight against segregation. It was church basements that they planned and plotted to open businesses to serve blacks and hire blacks.”
Sweeney also seized the moment to declare his endorsement of Booker in the party primary election in August. “What I’ve seen him do in Newark is nothing short of a miracle,” he said.
Wednesday’s event was put together as part of the “Raise the Wage Campaign,” an initiative of Working Families United for New Jersey Inc. The nonprofit describes itself as a “nonpartisan grassroots coalition” of labor, religious, community, civil rights, student, women and retirees groups.
However, the wage issue also is a key one for Democrats heading into the November election, and labor unions of every description dominate the list of member groups.
Booker said Sweeney was right to say the proposal does not constitute “class warfare.”
“I can tell you there are at least more than a dozen other states who have raised their minimum wage above the federal level,” Booker said. “Now, why doesn’t the federal level work? The federal level doesn’t work in New Jersey because that’s a wage they set for Alabama. That’s a federal wage that might work in Florida. But we all know that the cost of living in this state is one of the highest costs of living in the country.“
Booker turned from endorsing the minimum wage proposal to the importance of voter turnout to Democratic hopes, including his own election. There was a steep falloff in the last gubernatorial race between Republican Chris Christie and Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine contrasted with the 2008 presidential election, he said.
“And then I watch what happens,“ Booker said. “Chris Christie wins.”
Kelly, who also runs a nonprofit social services organization, said an increase in the minimum wage and the assurance of permanent cost-of-living adjustments would directly help the city. He also poked repeatedly at Sweeney and Booker to remember Bridgeton.
“Many times, people forget about little old Bridgeton,” Kelly said. “Urban area has urban problems. But we’re situated in beautiful South Jersey. So we have people like Sen. Sweeney and Assemblywoman (Celeste) Riley and the future U.S. senator, who are going to work that we are not forgotten.”
Sweeney and General Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who also attended, were among the primary sponsors of the minimum wage proposal that will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.
The proposal would amend the state constitution to set the minimum wage at $8.25 per hour, an increase from the current $7.25. The rate would be adjusted annually, without the need for legislative action, to keep up with inflation as calculated in the Consumer Price Index. And if the federal government increases its minimum wage standard, New Jersey’s rate would be raised to match it.
If voters approve the amendment, the measure would take effect in January.
The proposal is a Democratic counter to Christie’s veto of legislation in January. The vetoed measure would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 this year.
Christie followed the veto with his own proposal to raise the minimum wage over three years. The first raise would be 25 cents this year. In the next two years, there would be increases of 50 cents and 25 cents respectively. Further, the governor said, he would increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit by 25 percent.
Christie’s idea won support as a reasonable compromise by such groups as the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, New Jersey Business & Industry Association, Retail Merchants Association, the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey and Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey.
Thomas Bracken, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, earlier this year called the Democratic proposal a “kiss of death.”
“We’re not opposed to a minimum wage increase,” Bracken said. “We’re opposed to how it’s being done. It’s going to be mandated and irreversible and in the Constitution, which is an absolutely horrible place to put something like that. That should be legislated.”
Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, summed up the ballot question as giving workers the ability “to vote themselves a raise.”
“This is going to make Bridgeton a better community and New Jersey a better place to live,” he said.
Wowkanech noted there were only 139 days before the election to “get the message out.”
Not everyone in the audience was on board with raising the minimum wage. Jim Alston, 73, of Pittsgrove came to the event with some doubts and was hoping for more information.
“Business people make money and when you reduce profits they’re gonna take other steps,” Alston said. “And they may let you go.”
After the event was over, Alston still had at least one question about raising the minimum wage.
“I agree people do need more money,” Alston said. “My question would be: What do they expect to happen to unemployment? Will it go up or down?”
Billy Scott, 79, of Bridgeton hopes the state raises its minimum wage.
“We need it right away, especially down here in South Jersey,” Scott said. “Everyone is low wages down here and folks need help for their family.”
Sarah Wilkerson, 54, of Bridgeton was impressed by Booker’s visit.
“I was really encouraged,” she said. “Mayor Booker gave a lot of hope. And that’s great, because people are very hopeless.”
Sweeney introduced farm worker Jose Manuel Guzman to the audience. He’s a member of The Farm Workers Support Committee, a Glassboro-based organization that helps farm workers.
Guzman spoke in Spanish, with a translation by committee member Jessica Culley. Guzman talked about the difficulty he and others have living on the current minimum wage, especially with children to support.
Sweeney dismissed arguments that a wage increase would backfire, costing jobs and hurting businesses by increasing costs.
“I hear the business community say, ‘Well you know, if I’m paying somebody $10 an hour, I’ve got to give them $11 now,’” Sweeney said. “Good! Right or wrong? There’s no rich people here. Well, you know something? If you get another dollar, you’re going to spend it in stores and in businesses. And you know, that gives them business. So, look, this ‘trickle down economics,’ if I’m (not going) to church I’d tell you what I think. It doesn’t work. This is our opportunity. But I’m telling you, the business community is going to fight it.”