Wage vote rolled back

Lawrence Township voters did not get to vote on the Lawrenceville Living Wage Coalition’s ordinance in the Nov. 7 election due to a court-ordered injunction. The coalition has now decided to appeal the court’s ruling.

In municipalities that have passed the Faulkner Act, which includes Lawrence Township, citizens can propose ordinances without action by the local governing body. To do this, they must get at least 10 percent of the registered voters who turned out in the last general election to sign a petition supporting the proposed ordinance.

Over the summer, the coalition got 1,054 signatures in support of its “Large Retail Living Wage and Benefits Ordinance.” This ordinance, if passed, would require large retailers in the township to pay their workers a living wage. “Large retailer” means any company whose gross revenues total $1 billion or more on an annual basis and that operates a retail store whose indoor premises comprise 100,000 square feet or more.

The ordinance would set the living wage at an hourly wage rate of $11.08 and a benefits rate of $3.50 per hour. The state minimum wage was recently raised from $5.15 per hour to $7.15 per hour.

Though the coalition met the Faulkner Act’s requirments, the Lawrence Town Council did not put the ordinance on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The Council filed a lawsuit against the Coalition in state Superior Court. There, Judge Linda Feinberg ruled that the ordinance could not be put on the ballot because only the state could set the minimum wage.

Several New Jersey counties have passed living wage ordinances. After a living wage ordinance in Hudson County was overturned, the state legislature issued a statement that the Hudson ordinance was constitutional and did not exceed county authority. Feinberg interpreted this statement as granting authority to counties but not townships.

Now, the Coalition is preparing an appeal to Feinberg’s ruling. Nick Mellis, a member of the Coalition and a leader of the New Jersey Green Party said, “We must go forward. If we do not act, the statewide movement for a living wage will come to a grinding halt.”

“I feel responsible to every member of Lawrence that signed the petition,” Falk Engel, the coalition’s attorney, said. “We have a duty to these people”.

The Lawrenceville Living Wage Coalition grew out of another coalition – LET’s (Lawrenceville Ewing Trenton) Stop Wal-Mart.

The group’s objective was to pressure the Lawrence Township Planning Board to reject Wal-Mart’s application for a building permit.

The coalition said building a Wal-Mart on Spruce Street in Lawrence, minutes from the College, would create problems for the community, including increased traffic, pollution and flooding of the Shabakunk Creek from the store’s storm drainage basin, which collects water from the parking lot.

The store could put the neighboring Halo Farm and the Trenton Farmer’s Market out of business.

Despite the coalition’s opposition, the Planning Board granted Wal-Mart a building permit this year. Construction has not and may never begin. Wal-Mart projected same-store sales for October at a half-percent growth rate, and Wal-Mart CFO Tom Schoewe has announced that the company will see its capital spending grow 2 to 4 percent in fiscal 2008, down from the 15 to 20 percent growth in 2006. This may cause Wal-Mart to reconsider further expansion.

Whether or not Wal-Mart builds a store on Spruce Street, the Coalition believes people should still have some say in how businesses in the local area treat their workers. “If people can get 1,000 signatures on an issue, they should be able to get that issue on the ballot,” Mellis said. “That is the essence of democracy.”