Roundtable: Minimum Wage, NBA Dress Code Ed Gordon and his guests discuss the U.S. Senate vote against raising the national minimum wage, and the NBA's new dress code. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Republican strategist Tara Setmayer; and Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the NorthStar Network.

Roundtable: Minimum Wage, NBA Dress Code

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable, the Senate votes no on raising the minimum wage, and the NBA's dress code sparks controversy among its players. Joining us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, DC, Republican strategist Tara Setmayer. And joining us from the Big Apple today, Walter Fields, CEO and publisher of the Northstarnetwork.com. And George Curry, editor in chief of The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, joins us from Maryland.

All right, folks, we talked about this last week and as to whether or not this was, in fact, a good idea. It was one of the segments during our A segment. And that is, in fact, the raising of the minimum wage. According to the US Senate, Walter Fields, that should not happen. They have voted it down. Talk to me about whether or not you side with the senators who, in fact, voted against it by saying the the concern was, in fact, raising the minimum wage may disproportionately hurt poor people by virtue of small business owners no longer being able to pay wages and, therefore, either closing their businesses or laying people off.

Mr. WALTER FIELDS (Northstarnetwork.com): You know, that's always been the myth and the argument that's been used against raising the minimum wage, and I absolutely don't buy it. You know, I think if you look at the productivity of American workers, it has been increasing. And the fact that the minimum wage has been unchanged since 1997 and you look at the proportion of the working poor that's growing in this country, people living below the poverty line, I think it's shameful for Congress to reject this, particularly since they've given themselves raises consistently over the last five to seven years. And it's just another example of how I think working Americans are being, you know, shortsighted here in terms of their ability to have a living wage and raise a family. It's absolutely ridiculous that this was rejected on the Hill.

GORDON: Tara Setmayer, let me ask you this as relates to just timing. Either side of the aisle, when you talk about America looking at the role of poverty since Katrina, some will say this was not politically astute.

Ms. TARA SETMAYER (Republican Strategist): From a PR perspective, that may be the case, but from a public policy perspective, we need to be clear here about who actually is benefitting from a minimum wage. Only 20 percent of people who earn minimum wage actually support families. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 60 percent of those making minimum wage are under the age of 25 and are usually teen-agers working part-time jobs.

What we need to understand is that productivity in this country is hurt when the government forces businesses, small businesses, to increase the minimum wage that isn't consistent with their productivity. What it does is it prices out the lower-skilled workers. If a business is forced to raise their minimum wage to 7.25, which is ultimately what Senator Kennedy wanted to do, but they're getting workers that only produce $4 worth of work, that is an economic loss for those businesses, and it's considered a tax on that.

GORDON: Senator Kennedy wanted 6.25.

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah.

Ms. SETMAYER: Oh, well, 7.25 over 26 months and they moderated it, but regardless, when it's still imposing--it's a tax. And what statistics have also shown, the Small Business Administration showed that whenever--the slower wage growth among lower workers takes place when a minimum wage is increased. So there is a correlation between a diminishing in wage growth opportunities when the minimum wage is imposed by the government.

GORDON: George, isn't this part of the problem, what we heard, quite frankly, from Walter and Tara, the idea that all of these numbers you can play with and play with and play with till the cows come home, but the 20 percent that Tara talked about, the idea of these families with children, let alone just single people, are withering on the vine.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (The National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): And the fact is that these--you know, you can hear the regular poppycock stuff you just heard. The fact is that if senators can--have the nerve to increase their salary seven times, worth $28,000, I mean--but at the same time, not increase the minimum wage I think is absolutely horrendous, because what we're talking about is just liveable wages, and this is just another example of a double standard that Congress has.

GORDON: All right. Walter, this does not kill the idea of the minimum wage being raised, but it makes it much harder, obviously, again, with the timing. Do you believe that we're going to see Washington revisit this and move it up? We note--we should note that many states, in fact, have a higher minimum wage requirement than does the federal government.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, I would hope we would see Congress revisit this, and I think even some of the information that Tara provided, you know, is misleading. I mean, even when you look at teen-agers, many teen-agers are helping to support the families. So the notion that it's not important because it's teen-agers you're talking about is absolutely ridiculous. I think once again, we come to this point of who does our government side with? You know, do they side with the millions of Americans who are trying to raise families as the cost of living increases or do we side with the business community whose only interest is in making more money? And I think that's the bottom line here. And once again, this Congress, this administration has shown whose side that they're on.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, I think that it's unfair for you to characterize these statistics that I'm giving you as misleading. I'm letting you know what the federal government, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Small Business Administration--I mean, I'm not pulling these numbers out of the air. I...

Mr. FIELDS: I know you're not, but you can even pull numbers from the Small Business Administration, which is the Small Business Administration under this presidential administration, and there's been a whole lot of junk science coming out of Washington, DC, out of this administration.

GORDON: All right. Well, let's do this.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well...

GORDON: Let me do this. And, Tara, pick up your point. I do want you to be able to address what Walter said. But let's all agree, we can say whatever we really want to on either side with the numbers. So go ahead and pick up...

Ms. SETMAYER: Sure. But the point here, though, is that what we're discussing is the concept of whether it is good economic policy for a small business to be forced to raise wages, whether it's economically viable for them or not. You know, even though 75 percent of all jobs are created by small businesses, which have employees less than 100, they are the most financially unstable. And what this does, when the government forces them to raise the minimum wage, it creates a burden on the business. The Employee Policies Institute, which is not a government agency--they did a study, and what they found is that the annual wage growth is six times higher for those who are not on--forced to be on the minimum wage.

See, it's a concept of people who are--when you come into minimum wage jobs, no one is expecting that person to raise a family and be stuck in that position. The likelihood of being out of a minimum wage type job increases exponentially within a year; 90 percent of people who start off making minimum wage do not continue to make minimum wage after a year.

Mr. FIELDS: Then how do you explain poverty in this country and the rates of people living below the poverty line? I mean, it's...

Ms. SETMAYER: That's an education issue...

Mr. FIELDS: No, no, no. I mean...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...and lack of skills. It's not the minimum wage.

Mr. FIELDS: ...that's absolutely ludicrous and the fact of the matter is the only thing that matters is not this notion of whether or not small businesses are being taxed. It's whether or not people can afford to live. We've got a country where people can't even afford--they're making choices between paying the light bill or putting food on the table. And to sit up here and fight statistics, particularly from government agencies that are controlled by an administration that has been openly hostile towards the working poor I think is shameful. So, yeah, we can quote all the numbers that we want, but the bottom line is how are people expected to live in this country under these conditions?

GORDON: George.

Mr. CURRY: All right. Ed, may I get into this? First of all...

GORDON: You may.

Mr. CURRY: ...you know, we've heard these scare tactics before. Every time we've raised the minimum wage, since way back when Roosevelt--when the first one was a nickel, I believe--people have said, `Oh, you're going to lose jobs.' It simply has not happened. And to prove that it's not an education issue, every--if you compare blacks and white at every level, whether it's dropout, high school or graduate school, whites are paid more money there. So the issue is not education, and we shouldn't confuse the issue.

GORDON: Fine.

Mr. CURRY: This is the same old dogma that people really do make a choice in terms of whether you side with the workers...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. CURRY: ...or you side with the business community.

GORDON: All right. Let me do this.

Mr. CURRY: And that's very clear.

GORDON: I've got to take us to another subject, and that is--and it speaks--quite frankly, it parallels this. And that is what we're seeing on the Gulf Coast in terms of the cleanup of that area and that region. We are seeing many illegal immigrants being used by contractors, being promised food, housing and payment for their work. What we are finding is more and more of these workers are not, in fact, being paid by the contractors. They are housed sometimes in warehouses or buildings. They are being given food, and they are waiting and awaiting payment. Yes, these contractors are, in fact, using this as a means of, to a great degree, free labor. There have been some investigations into all of this, and this is part and parcel--many people were concerned about this--by the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, George Curry.

Mr. CURRY: Well, I think this is a vulnerable population. People started heading across the border when they heard that there was work, and they came here and they have families to take care of, and sometimes, these companies are paying them. Sometimes they're not, because they know that they're vulnerable, they're here illegally, and they're exploiting them.

GORDON: All right. And I should note, for those that don't know--aren't familiar with the Davis-Bacon Act is an act, a federal act, that prohibits federally financed contractors from paying wages less than what the local average is. Tara.

Ms. SETMAYER: We have a problem with illegal immigration across the board in this country, and I think it's unfortunate that this group is exploited, but at the same time, I fault the federal government for not enforcing illegal immigration laws. Between 1999 and 2003, the arrests of illegal workers dropped 84 percent. The government and businesses are complicit in this, and until we either secure the border--I'm in favor of putting troops on the border to stop people from crossing them illegally--this is going to continue to be a problem.

And I use the example of, we need to take care of our people here at home. These are illegal workers. These contracts and this work should be going to the residents of New Orleans and the victims of this catastrophe to help them get back on their feet.

GORDON: Walter.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, I'm in favor of treating people humanely, and I think the fact of the matter is, is when you suspend Davis-Bacon, you open the door for businesses to use illegal immigrants, because the wages that they're going to pay are so low that you're not going to get people to work for those wages. And the fact is that these people, these illegal immigrants, even though they're not citizens, they are still human beings. They're being exploited. They should be paid what they're worth in terms of their labor, and they should also be taken care of in terms of their health-care needs. They are doing some very dangerous work right now in the Gulf Coast, and I can guarantee you that those who become ill or injured on the job will not be protected. They'll simply be exploited.

GORDON: All right.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, illegal immigrants shouldn't be protected with taxpayer dollars in this country. Our own citizens need to be taken care of first. There are special interest groups, church groups, charity groups, and I'm not against treating people humanely, but we need to take care of our own first.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. FIELDS: We have an administration that is traveling around the globe, supposedly bringing democracy to the world. Our taxpayer dollars are going to treat so many people fairly that people who enter our country, if no one else, we should at least extend a hand so that one day, they will want to become citizens. So the notion of taking care of home, if we're really interested in taking care of home, bring the troops back from Iraq, close the--you know, stop all of your...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. FIELDS: ...foreign incursions and really...

Ms. SETMAYER: Apples and oranges.

Mr. FIELDS: ...take care of American citizens. That's not going to happen.

GORDON: All right. George Curry, real quick, I've got to get this last topic in. Go ahead.

Mr. CURRY: But basically, I mean, I agree that the people in New Orleans should get first preference over anybody, whether they're in this country or not. But that's not happening, and nor are the companies. Small businesses, minority-owned businesses should get a shot at this instead of these no-bid contracts. I mean, but that's simply not happening, and your president already likes this program by having exploitation of people coming across the border, trying to formalize it.

GORDON: All right, George, let me get you to pick up on the last subject quickly for me, if you will, and that is this week, we heard the NBA suggest that they are now going to institute a dress code for NBA players. It will go into effect the start of this season. They will require these players to wear what they call business casual attire when involved in team or league business. That includes traveling on the road. They can no longer wear visible chains, pendants, medallions over their clothes. They can't wear what they are calling, quote, "hip-hop gear." Many of the players are upset, suggesting that this is, in their minds, to a great degree, racist.

Mr. CURRY: You know, what hurts anti-racism movement is--that when people claim is racism when it's not. This is anti-thuggery, and I think it's a good idea. If you're talking about team functions, that you should be dressed appropriately. I have no problems with it whatsoever. In fact, I applaud it.

Ms. SETMAYER: Absolutely, George, I agree with you. I think what has happened is that we've allowed such a culture of mediocrity in this country, that these are multi-multimillionaires, and this is a job. They still take a look at it as if they're playing on the playground and they can do what they want. There are still rules, and there should be a certain amount of respect in the way you present yourself. And if the NBA, which is their employer, decides that they want to have a dress code, a professional dress code, then that is their prerogative. I think it's absolutely ridiculous that some of these players are complaining that they should get a stipend to buy new clothes. They make a hundred million dollars a year. So I think they're just acting like spoiled brats, and...

GORDON: Well, very few...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...they need to...

GORDON: ...very few of them make a hundred million dollars a year, but...

Ms. SETMAYER: Oh.

Mr. FIELDS: Yeah. Tell me...

Ms. SETMAYER: They make...

GORDON: ...but they are very wealthy. Let's say that.

Ms. SETMAYER: Many of them--but the league minimum is six figures, and they afford to wear a suit and tie.

GORDON: Right. But six figures is a little different than a hundred million dollars a year.

Mr. FIELDS: A little bit.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, the...

GORDON: But, Walter Fields, come in...

Ms. SETMAYER: ...they make between eight and 10 and $12 million a year.

GORDON: ...and help a brother out.

Mr. FIELDS: Well, OK.

GORDON: What's wrong with a cat wearing, you know, a baseball cap and a throw-back jersey?

Mr. FIELDS: See, I don't think there's anything wrong, because if you go back to the '70s, when Julius Erving and those cats were playing, they were wearing the clothes of the period. They were wearing the Afros, and people thought that was outrageous. I think the--they want it both ways, because if the NBA is going to take this measure, then they also need to stop playing the thug music in their arenas. They also need to stop promoting these players in the same way that they're promoted in rap videos. And if they're going to really impose standards, they should also be talking to players who have, you know, a hundred sixty dollar shoes, like Michael Jordan had, that kids were killing each other over.

I mean, so it's sort of like, yeah, you do the dress code because want to impose this moral standard. Well, really impose a moral standard and talk to these players about their ethical behavior across the board. I think what's happened here is that the NBA is looking in those arenas, they're looking at who's filling those seats, and there's some discomfort with the fact that the seats--because you can only afford to go to NBA games these days if you're making some money--the seats are being filled mainly by whites, and these players are mostly black and they're mostly young, and also the NBA, if you're going to do this, stop recruiting 18-year-olds into your league.

Ms. SETMAYER: Well, they have.

Mr. FIELDS: That's what you get.

GORDON: Hey, George Curry, some of these players have shot back to say it isn't the business suit that's the problem, and they talk about and, you know, rightfully so, to some degree, Enron and Martha Stewart's wardrobe, and here are people who have broken the law and are looked at in a particular way and given a break, quite frankly, after the fact. What's the difference here?

Mr. CURRY: Well, there's a big difference. I mean, we're simply talking about appropriate dress when you're--regarding team matters. You're not talking about what you do afterwards. You can wear a chain on your ankle if you leave there, but the fact is, in terms of team functions...

GORDON: But, George, is it appropriate that you have to wear a suit from the auditorium to the bus...

Mr. CURRY: You don't have to wear a tie...

GORDON: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Business attire, which is casual business attire, means a sport coat, from the arena to the bus to the hotel. That's what they're requiring now.

Mr. CURRY: Yes, yes, yes.

Mr. FIELDS: OK.

Ms. SETMAYER: And it's actually fairly liberal. Business casual attire just means a collared shirt and dress jeans or dress slacks, and instead of sneakers, wear shoes. I don't think that's too much to ask.

GORDON: Oh, all right.

Mr. FIELDS: The height of silliness.

GORDON: Yeah. I'm with you on this one, Walter, and, you know...

Mr. FIELDS: The height of silliness.

GORDON: ...and I love my suits, but, look, I'm going to turn my hat...

Mr. CURRY: We know that, Ed.

GORDON: ...backwards just as soon as I leave NPR, I'll tell you what.

Ms. SETMAYER: Do it when you get on the bus.

GORDON: All right.

Mr. CURRY: I've never seen you on TV like that, ED.

Ms. SETMAYER: That's right.

Mr. FIELDS: ...(Unintelligible) Ed Gordon.

GORDON: Yeah, but you will--hey, hey, you will see me in the street like that. Tara Setmayer, Walter Fields and George Curry, thank you very much.

Mr. FIELDS: Thank you.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you.

GORDON: And just a note to the listeners, you can hear the roundtable anytime you'd like. Simply visit our Web site at npr.org and click on to `NPR podcast' to learn how the roundtable can be delivered to your computer or MP3 player every day.

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