Calls for undermining the rising statewide minimum wage with a subminimum wage for teens


A couple of days back I picked up a Cambridge Chronicle newspaper at a takeout joint I frequent. Opened it up. Skimmed the top story, and the week’s arrests. Then moved on to the editorial. And was stopped cold upon seeing its headline, “The benefits of a teen minimum wage.” Which immediately set off alarm bells in my head.


I then read the missive carefully and confirmed my suspicion that it was a good deal more conservative than was typical for Chronicle staff—and that it called for a lower minimum wage for Mass 14- to 17-year-olds. Meaning it had almost certainly been written by executives at the paper’s corporate owner, GateHouse Media. Which is a serious issue worth unpacking at some length. So much so that I’ll take two columns to do it. This week I’ll look at the political implications of the editorial’s position. And next time out, I’ll focus on why the editorial is a textbook example of the many problems created by runaway media consolidation.


Let’s start with the idea of a “teen minimum wage.” The thing about a minimum wage is that it only provides the maximum economic benefit to workers in a polity when it covers all of them. If some groups of workers get worse deals than others, then it’s easier for employers to exploit those groups. A very current example of that situation is happening here in Massachusetts where—in a move I’ve written critically about—labor groups negotiated a fairly weak deal last year to gradually move the state minimum wage to $15 an hour in stages by 2023.


One of things that made the deal more anemic than it should have been is that tipped employees like restaurant servers are still stuck with a lower minimum wage. As are some farm workers. Which has long been the lot of both groups in the particularly vicious anti-labor industries they toil in. A problem that already hurts far too many workers—and is most damaging to immigrant laborers with fewer rights—in both restaurant and agricultural jobs.


So that’s bad enough. But what if a group of workers goes from having a higher minimum to a lower minimum wage? Well, that’s much worse for many more people. Because employers can start replacing workers that are being paid the higher wage with workers who can then be paid a lower wage.


Which is exactly what GateHouse, the owner of the Cambridge Chronicle and over 100 other news outlets in Massachusetts alone, is supporting with its unsigned editorial that ran in roughly 26 of its newspapers (according to my ridiculously expensive dive into its archives) in communities all around Boston between Jan 7 and Jan 10. A subminimum wage for 14- to 17-year-olds. As if a job done by a younger teenager is not deserving of exactly the same compensation as a job done by someone 18 or older. Because you know once you hit 18, you can really wash dishes or stock shelves or scoop ice cream with much more aplomb than some baby person of 17, right?


And what a squirrely editorial it was. Taking a policy proposal that’s mainly being pushed hereabouts by one industry group, the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (aka the mightily acronymed RAM), along with three similarly questionable “reforms.” Which GateHouse and its shadowy owner, New Media Investment Group Inc., clearly support. And attempting to jump-start a campaign for its passage at the beginning of the Commonwealth’s two-year legislative cycle.


Fans of state politics may recall that RAM is the very group that was pushing labor-side negotiators on two issues in advance of last summer’s (not so) “Grand Bargain” between business and union lobbies—in exchange for its supporting the gradual Mass minimum-wage increase. According to State House News Service, it wanted to put a spike in the old state law mandating time-and-a-half pay for work done on Sundays and holidays. Which it got (to labor’s shame). And it wanted a subminimum wage for teens. Which it didn’t get.


Now it’s a new session at the State House, and the association of over 3,200 retailers and restaurants that is RAM is back for another swing at the teen subminimum wage. With the help of GateHouse execs. Which is funny because the newspaper industry doesn’t use many teenagers anymore. Even paperboys and -girls have been replaced by older people with cars that cover much more ground much faster when delivering papers.


But you know who does use a lot of teenage labor and would use more if the labor price were right? Retailers and restaurant owners. And you know what kind of businesses advertise with GateHouse newspapers—most of which are the only game in their respective cities and towns for print advertising that reaches significant swathes of local populations across much of Massachusetts? You got it: those same local stores and eateries.


Seen through that lens, the editorial is even more concerning. It’s targeted at communities with lots of homeowners sympathetic to local businesses. Its pitch is a fundamentally conservative one spun with populist overtones aimed at appealing to both left- and right-wingers. Which is played as follows: First the editorial presents a study by the very important-sounding Mercatus Center at George Mason University—which GateHouse at no point mentions is a very large think tank funded up to its gills by the hard-right Koch brothers and other anti-labor billionaires—that kind of sort of shows that maybe the pathetically tiny raises in the federal minimum wage passed in 1996 and 2007 plus similarly small raises over the last quarter century in some (but not all) states might have been one among a number of contributing factors to an 11 percent decline in the rate of high school-aged teenagers holding jobs between 1994 and 2014. [Keeping in mind that the 1996 change to the Fair Labor Standards Act that raised the minimum wage of its day also established a federal subminimum wage of $4.25 for workers under 20 during their first 90 calendar days of employment that has never been raised since.]


Nothing definitive at all, mind you. Then the editorial continues by saying that the state minimum wage is going up to $15 by 2023. And tries to impress readers with its seeming journalistic objectivity in quoting the left-leaning Mass Budget and Policy Center (in the person of a guy I once did some labor organizing with, Jeremy Thompson) explaining why raising the minimum wage is good for workers and for local economies alike. After which the mysterious GateHouse authors blow the ideological cover they just attempted to establish by quoting the manager of Boston’s recently shuttered Durgin-Park restaurant claiming its demise was somehow the result of this year’s preliminary raise of the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Which it absolutely wasn’t. Since a big percentage of the staff of any restaurant is its front-of-house employees—servers, bartenders, and the like—and they’re all screwed with a base subminimum wage mandated by state law for tipped employees. Currently at the princely level of $4.35 an hour. Which bosses are supposed to ensure makes it up to the regular minimum wage through tips. But who’s kidding who about the enforceability of that rule?


The authors conclude by insisting that they’re totally down with the adult minimum wage. And agree it’s not a “job killer.” But they ask us to pity the poor teenagers. Who supposedly aren’t getting jobs because businesses aren’t willing to pay that sexy top dollar minimum wage to teeny boppers. They then bemoan how “teens who can’t find a job lose out on learning skills that will benefit them in the marketplace.” Never having proven that there was any hard correlation between minimum-wage rises and teens delaying entering the labor market to begin with. Certainly not to the satisfaction of pro-labor think tanks like the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Which stated in a 2018 report “Bold increases in the minimum wage should be evaluated for the benefits of raising low-wage workers’ total earnings” that “Critics of minimum wage increases ignore the overwhelming evidence that prior increases have, on average, had little to no average effect on the employment level of low-wage employees like teenagers and restaurant workers.”


Moving along in the editorial, the reading audience is then treated to a quote by the RAM president saying that “[t]hirty-nine states” have a teen minimum wage. Which is supposed to make Mass readers want to walk off that particular policy cliff, too. But that worthy fails to say that at least some of those states did so only after relentless lobbying by member-organizations of the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council and State Policy Network. Both of which are connected to the Mercatus Center. And both of which have been traveling from state to state for years gutting child labor laws in their wake. Increasing the number of hours teens are able to work each week and instituting subminimum wages for teens. According to a 2013 EPI report entitled “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012” that says: “The same policymakers and business associations leading the charge against public employee unions are also trying to undo minimum-wage, prevailing-wage, and living-wage laws … and to replace adult employees with teenagers and guestworkers.”


What the unnamed GateHouse authors don’t say is the truth. Which is that if Massachusetts passes a subminimum wage for teenage workers, then employers in many sectors—but especially the retail sector—will be able to replace adult workers getting the gradually-increasing higher minimum wage with kids working for a state-mandated lower wage. Neither of which are high enough to be considered the living-wage jobs—let alone the secure long-term jobs with benefits—that so many workers desperately need in these difficult times.


In doing so, state government will not be helping teenagers. It will be screwing their parents. Many of whom are minimum-wage workers trying to support their families on the meager earnings of an ever-changing assortment of two, three, or even four bad contingent jobs at a time.


State pols will also be fattening the bottom line of lots of retailers. Who can in turn plump up the profits of GateHouse Media by buying more ads, one supposes.


A less than virtuous circle. Which would pit teenagers against their own parents. And would teach them an important life lesson unmentioned in the editorial: Under neoliberal capitalism, the only option for workers is “the war of all against all,” as Hobbes once put it… and the devil take the hindmost. Yet another reason that more and more young people are turning to socialism.


Check out the follow-up column: “Why GateHouse’s Boston Megacluster Is a Threat to Democracy” here.


Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.