Just off Coney Island Avenue, in Ditmas Park, among the car washes and Pakistani sweet shops, there sits a lefty coffeehouse that seems to have dropped in from Williamsburg or maybe Seattle. Inside, the walls are painted an inviting shade of yellow; undulating, handmade bookshelves feature local zines—one of the store’s bestsellers is America (The Book), by the creators of The Daily Show. A small latte is $3, 10 cents less than at Starbucks.
Vox Pop, as the café is called, is the anti-Starbucks in more ways than one. On March 1, its six employees, led by 18-year-old Emmy Gilbert, announced that they had joined the Industrial Workers of the World’s NYC Retail Workers Union, IU 660. “Vox Pop workers decided we wanted to take the shop’s motto of democracy to its fullest extent,” Gilbert said. “And the IWW doesn’t think organizing retail is futile.”
Sander Hicks, who opened Vox Pop in November, may be the first boss to summon the revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist forces on behalf of his own workers. He is best known as the founder of Soft Skull Press, the respected underground imprint; the café-bookstore is a physical extension of his ideals about politics and community. After consulting with the IWW, Hicks settled on a starting wage of $10 an hour. “If we pay people $6 an hour we’re going to get a low level of job love, people stealing from you, attacking customers,” he says. “How can we not afford to pay more?”
Unfortunately, no one was around to make that case in the Senate on March 7. On that day, both Republican and Democratic proposals to raise the federal minimum wage from its current $5.15 an hour were defeated. Senator Ted Kennedy’s bill, backed by labor, would have hiked the minimum to $7.25 over two years, affecting nearly 8 million workers. Senator Rick Santorum’s counter-offer would have moved the wage to $6.25 an hour; provided $4.2 billion in tax breaks, mostly to the restaurant industry; exempted 6.8 million employees of small businesses; and eliminated the right to overtime and a 40-hour workweek with a “flextime” provision. “That’s right: poor people actually dodged a bullet when this ‘wage increase’ was voted down!” wrote Ryan Spear on journalist Joshua Micah Marshall’s blog. By the end of this year, the minimum wage will have been stuck at the same figure for nine years, equaling the longest stretch without an increase; its buying power is the lowest in 40 years.
The minimum wage is emphatically a youth issue. Half of all minimum wage workers are 23 or under, and three-fourths are enrolled in either high school or college. Conservative senator Orrin Hatch repeated an old saw in the Senate last week when he argued, “Those who are earning the minimum wage are either in high school or living at home with their parents. These employees are not supporting families.”
The perversity of this argument leaps out when you realize how much the retail and service sectors, presumably run by “real” adults who are supporting families, depend on low-wage youth workers. In restaurants, grocery stores, and department stores nationwide, half the workers are under 24; in retail as a whole, young workers make up the largest group. As UC Berkeley professor Stuart Tannock argues, these jobs are explicitly designed with young people in mind—unpredictable hours, high turnover, no benefits, flat hierarchies with little chance for advancement. Then the industries turn around and claim that the young employees so essential to their businesses are just hobbyists.
Anti-poverty advocates counter that nearly half of minimum wage workers are full-time, and that most contribute needed earnings to their families. We should also be asking what effect it has on America’s competitiveness when the majority of young people must combine low-wage work with school, often for six or seven years or more, in order to afford a credential. Only then, with a résumé full of exhausting, dead-end jobs, are they considered qualified for “real jobs.”
Emmy Gilbert, who grew up in New Hampshire, is actually deferring college for a year to work at Vox Pop. “I was looking to shape my own education,” she says. “Vox Pop was a perfect fit. I love it here.” If circumstances were different, she would probably be marking her time behind the counter of McDonald’s or Starbucks. Instead, besides brewing fair-trade cappuccinos, she is working at a place she helped build, literally and figuratively; learning about organizing, labor politics, public relations, event planning, and running a small business; and earning a living wage. Jobs don’t get much more real than that.