“If we had more money, we’d be able to do more or make better choices,” Reynolds says. “We’re only able to stay afloat because we neglect other responsibilities. I owe AT&T, I owe Verizon, I got a lawyer I’m supposed to be paying. How we are right now, I need every penny coming our way.”
With no college education, it’ll take the couple a long time to work their way up the pay scale. But Reynolds is taking another action that could boost their earnings: On Monday, he and other workers sued the governor of Wisconsin for not raising the minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 an hour.
“Whenever I see another fast-food worker, I just think, ‘You just don’t know what steps I’m taking for myself and us,’ ” Reynolds says.
His plan seems a little far-fetched, and in any other state it would be. Wisconsin, however, has a unique quirk in its labor law that’s been nearly ignored for over a century — and if Reynolds wins, it could put his family, and thousands of others, on a better footing.
Wisconsin, perhaps more so than any other state, has over the past few years been embroiled in a culture war over workers’ rights. Since Gov. Scott Walker (R) gutted the power of public sector unions to collectively bargain in 2011, membership has fallen dramatically, and, according to union officials, wages with it. He’s among a handful of governors who hold the power to set their state’s minimum wage, but has rejected requests to raise it above the federal baseline, saying that the minimum wage doesn’t serve a purpose and the state should be focused on making sure people earn a lot more.
The current political reality, though, is a departure from Wisconsin’s labor history. The state was the first in the nation to allow public unions to bargain collectively, back in 1959. It’s also the only state to actually require the state’s minimum wage to be set at a level that allows families to support themselves — a so-called “living wage” when the law was passed in 1913.
“Coming out of this long progressive history in Wisconsin is this idea that the minimum wage ought to be linked to a living wage,” says Joseph McCartin, an historian of labor law at Georgetown University. “Back when the concept of a minimum wage was being developed, people often spoke interchangeably of them. As a country, over time, we’ve diverged from the notion that the minimum wage ought to keep the people who earn it above the poverty level.”
Over the years, Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development has used the law to adjust minimum wages as it deemed necessary. But Republican politicians have been more reluctant to do so. In 1995, the Service Employees International Union sued Gov. Tommy Thompson over the wage level, and the court ordered that the state conduct an analysis of what it should be. But then, the GOP-led legislature amended the law to require that the department take into account “job creation, retention, and expansion, on the availability of entry‐level jobs, and on regional economic conditions within the state,” which may have lowered where it ultimately ended up.
Since the mid-1990s, the dusty living wage law didn’t get much attention — until Peter Rickman, an organizer with the liberal group Wisconsin Jobs Now, was digging through statutes searching for levers.
“What we’ve looked for is any possible way to raise wages, and this is what we found,” Rickman says. “The process to raise the minimum in Wisconsin has been hiding in plain sight for 101 years. I guess tradition and past practice of the political classes left that somewhat untouched.”
The group started by filing complaints with the Department of Workforce Development from 100 low-wage workers, charging that the minimum wage was nowhere near enough to support a decent standard of living. Walker’s administration rejected them, ruling that there was “no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complainants are not a living wage” — and based its decision on a study from the restaurant industry charging that a higher minimum would economically damage the state. A spokeswoman also told the Wisconsin State Journal that the governor was trying to “help employers create jobs that pay far more than the minimum wage or any other proposed minimum.”
Then on Monday, Rickman and three of those low-wage worker complainants — including Motise Reynolds — filed a lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court charging that analysis was flawed. If they win — there’s no timetable for the lawsuit moving forward — the state would have to convene a council of representatives from business, labor and the public to determine what a living wage would look like. It’s done that before, but never under the eyes of a bunch of advocates determined to put the issue in the spotlight.
Of course, that’s part of the point — Walker is currently in a dead heat for reelection with Democratic opponent Mary Burke. Walker has downplayed the lawsuit as a “raw, cheap political stunt,” and indeed, Wisconsin Jobs Now has been making hay out of Walker’s opposition to raising the minimum wage, which 73 percent of Wisconsinites support. If he loses, the issue likely becomes moot, since Burke also favors a minimum wage hike up to $10.10. If Walker wins, the lawsuit might be the only thing that could have the same effect.
What do Rickman and company want to see for the new minimum wage? They throw out a few possible numbers — $11, which is what the minimum wage would be if it were adjusted to keep up with inflation since 1968, or $17, which is what it would be if it had kept up with worker productivity. As for the economic effect: The research on whether increased wages kills jobs is still disputed, but Rickman has made up his mind, pointing out that poor people are much more likely than rich people to spend the extra cash in their pockets.
“We would say that taking account of the economic situation actually bolsters the case to raise the minimum wage,” Rickman says. “We’re putting money in the hands of those who create jobs.”
For his part, Reynolds is focused on next week, when Espinal goes back to work full time after taking a few weeks off to give birth to their second daughter. Popeye’s is just a few minutes down the road, so Reynolds can walk, but Espinal has to take a couple buses across town to get to the McDonalds where she works. It’s going to be tricky; without being able to afford daycare, they’ve worked out their schedules so that one of them can be home with the kids at all times.
“At this moment, we’ve got set days where I’ll go in and she’ll go in,” Reynolds says. “Next week, I’ll work half the day and she’ll work half the day. It’s going to be really hard to see each other.”
Reynolds knows that having children at such a young age wasn’t the best idea — he wanted to finish college first, since he hopes to become an architectural engineer. Espinal wants to go into cosmetology and maybe eventually open her own salon. Parenthood has put that on hold. “When life hits you, you got to kind of get the dice rolling,” he says. “In a perfect world we would’ve waited, but it didn’t turn out that way.”
In the meantime, he’s waiting to see what happens with his case. Working with the unions backing fast-food strikes and legal action, he says, has given him a sense of forward motion.
“When they approached me, I wasn’t as optimistic as I am now,” Reynolds says. “There’s a lot of them, and they’re made up of people just like me. It’s just like one big family.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Peter Rickman was a lawyer. He is not.