Massachusetts lawmakers on Wednesday agreed to historic wage and benefits legislation designed to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers, but the bill's passage was tainted with charges that legislators had backtracked on important worker issues in order to appease the retail industry sector.
Under the bill, the hourly minimum wage in Massachusetts will rise from $11 to $15 over a five-year period and a $1 billion paid family and medical leave program overseen by state government and backed by a payroll tax will be launched so workers can more easily take care of themselves and their families without facing fiscal crises.
State Legislators scrambled to assemble the so-called “grand bargain” bill after interest groups, fed up with the lack of action on Beacon Hill, initiated ballot drives and forced legislative leaders to engage with them at the negotiating table, or risk having major policies written into law by voters.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who says he favors bipartisanship and compromise, was largely a bystander in the negotiations and has declined to stake out positions on the issues while encouraging legislators to work on alternatives to the ballot questions. Baker on Wednesday said it was "great news" that a deal had been reached and the votes to engross the bill -- 126-25 in the House and 30-8 in the Senate -- indicate a veto, however unlikely, could be overridden.
The House later voted 119-24 to enact the bill and the Senate enacted the bill on a voice vote with just two senators present.
While two groups were behind the three questions, the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition that is pushing the minimum wage and paid leave questions escaped the hostile criticisms targeted Wednesday at the Retailers Association of Massachusetts (RAM). The Association leveraged a sales tax reduction ballot question into a series of concessions that did not sit well with some lawmakers, but were viewed as just a part of the compromise by most in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Sen. Marc Pacheco said on the Senate floor that the retailers "successfully held us up" with the potential sales tax cut. Sen. Barbara L'Italien called it an "impossible" vote, and Sen. Cynthia Creem said she felt she had to choose between standing with labor and standing with women.
"The compromise legislation passed today contains very costly initiatives that will negatively impact the thousands of small business owners and their employees that RAM represents,” RAM President Jon Hurst said Wednesday evening. “The retail marketplace has never been more competitive, and the margins have never been smaller. The new payroll mandates passed today will significantly increase costs, resulting in businesses being less competitive, forcing some doors to close and good jobs to be lost. This is not rhetoric, but reality. At the same time, the results would be far worse had these measures gone to the ballot, and the Legislature deserves credit for bringing the parties together to bring a balanced resolution."
As many cheered the $15 per hour minimum wage moving forward as part of Wednesday's deal, one worker from a Boston McDonald's says union rights are the next goal.
"When fast-food workers first went on strike demanding $15 an hour and union rights five years ago, no one gave us a shot," Mackinley Celestin, a McDonald's worker from Boston said in a statement released Wednesday by the Fight for $15 campaign. "But now, workers in Massachusetts are on a path to joining more than 10 million Americans across the country who have already won a $15 an hour minimum wage since our Fight for $15 began. Our momentum is unstoppable, and once we win $15 an hour, we are going to keep speaking out, protesting, and going on strike until we win the union rights we’ve demanded since Day One."
The compromise bill that passed the Legislature on Wednesday would deliver a $15 minimum wage in five years, rather than the four years proposed in the initiative petition sponsored by the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, and also does not tie the minimum wage to inflation, as the ballot question does.
Though Raise Up said Wednesday that it will not bring its paid family and medical leave question to the ballot if the deal agreed to Wednesday becomes law, the coalition of more than 100 groups said it will not decide until next week whether to drop its ballot effort to raise the minimum wage.
Democrats on Monday absorbed a stinging defeat when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled a surtax on wealthy residents was not eligible for the November ballot, and some lawmakers said a piece of Wednesday's deal rolling back time-and-a-half pay for working Sundays and holidays marked an unforgivable retreat from a benefit that workers have relied upon for decades to boost their incomes.
"My no vote is against taking thousands of dollars away from the paychecks of retail workers in particular. For a person working full-time at a retail job, (it would be) about a $3,200 cut in pay," Pacheco, one of the six Senate Democrats to vote in opposition to the deal, said. "A $3,200 cut in pay for the worker, but the big box store smiles all the way to the bank because what we're saving is on the backs of those workers."
Once the Legislature had sent the compromise bill to the governor's desk Wednesday evening, a Baker spokeswoman said only that he would review it.
This report was originally published by the State House News Service.