It took time, but Gov. Phil Murphy at last recognized the benefits of compromise and now stands on the cusp of a much-needed significant victory for his legislative agenda and the fulfillment of a major campaign promise — an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
After nearly a year and amid rising concern that negotiations had reached a stalemate, Murphy withdrew his insistence that no exemptions be included while legislative leaders agreed to compress the time frame in which the full $15 would be achieved.
And, voila! A million working men and women, including teenagers, now stand to receive hourly wage increases each year for the next five years.
Compromise — giving a little to gain a lot — was validated yet again, casting the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) in the glow of reasonable people willing to act in behalf of the greater good and rise above personal interests or differences of opinion.
The agreement awaiting legislative approval sets the minimum wage at $15 per hour by 2024 and for seasonal and small businesses by 2026. Farmworkers’ salaries would reach $12.50 per hour by 2024 at which point state officials would decide on whether to establish $15 an hour for them by 2027.
Relieving the pressure
When fully implemented, the annual salary for a standard 40-hour work week would reach $31,200. With New Jersey consistently ranking in the top 10 states in the nation for the highest cost of living — as high as third in several surveys — $31,200 won’t provide significant disposable income, but it will certainly go far to relieve the pressures and angst of providing the basic necessities of life on the current top level of $18,400.
The business community, of course, is unhappy despite privately conceding that the forces driving the increase would not be denied.
Business groups warned that the higher wage would tighten the entry-level job market and severely limit the job openings available to teenagers looking to make a start.
The pace of automation — opting for machines rather than humans — would accelerate, critics predicted, as businesses strove for savings and economies in their operations.
Time will tell if young persons are priced out of the market as a result of the higher minimum, but the contention that a lower wage scale is all that stands between humans and robots is specious at best.
Bright spot for Murphy
Automation has become as much a part of business operations as turning on the lights in the morning and off in the evening. Reliance on machines in the workplace will likely continue to increase, no matter the wage level.
The agreement on the increase is a victory for Murphy, a bright spot in an otherwise cloudy political and policy environment.
His staff is likely already drafting arrangements for a public ceremony for the governor to affix his signature to the legislation, surrounded by cheering supporters to whom he can distribute souvenir pens.
It is a key element in the progressive agenda upon which he campaigned and the euphoria enveloping his office must be satisfying, indeed.
The larger lesson here, though, is a breakthrough in understanding and appreciating the need to work with the legislative leadership if goals are to be achieved.
Powerful but not omnipotent
Murphy is still one of the most constitutionally powerful governors in the nation, but the power is not absolute, nor does it guarantee successful outcomes in every instance.
It can be offset and stymied by the equal power wielded by a united Legislature and led by strong personalities in leadership positions.
Murphy’s short history in office — just over a year — was marked by a belief in an omnipotent executive branch which needed only to declare its desire for legislative compliance and it would be granted.
The compromise on the minimum wage increase should convince Murphy and his staff that their view was skewed by a landslide election and that future successes depend not on non-negotiable demands but on listening and understanding contrary points of view expressed by those who will decide the ultimate fate of his agenda.
Something for everybody
Now that he’s embraced the value of the something-for-everybody benefits offered by compromise, Murphy is in a more realistic position as he prepares to submit his budget to the Legislature next month.
Dealing effectively with a legislative leadership already on record in opposition to tax increases of any sort will be a major test for the governor as he seeks to convince them that additional revenue is vital if the state is to solve existing problems such as fully funding the school aid formula and taking steps toward erasing the massive multibillion dollar unfunded liability in the public pension and health benefits system.
The moment should not be lost, however. Some 1 million working men and women are now able to move closer to the middle class and attain enhanced personal economic security because someone learned that victory is actually spelled c-o-m-p-r-o-m-i-s-e.