Law in Contemporary Society
Martha Tharaud, the labor lawyer in Cerriere's Answer, wonders about the working lives of people she sees, such as the Ying's server and the Dean & DeLuca? cleaner. I also wonder in this same way about people I see, and I think most union people do. Oddly, Martha has the minimum wage wrong. In 1996, the New York State minimum wage was no more than $4.25, not "five dollars, roughly." That leaves the server’s post-tax income, if you use the same calculations Martha did, at $6400 year, not $7500. (In fact, if the server was a tipped employee -- I can’t tell from the story -- her wage would have been $2.90, putting her post-tax, sans-tips annual income at $4400.)

I'm not sure if we as the audience are supposed to read anything into Martha's mistake. Is writing about a labor lawyer who doesn't know the minimum wage a subtle comment by the author? Or was it just an editing mistake? The New York minimum wage actually went up in 1997 and 1998, to $4.75 and then $5.15. That could have created confusion for whomever fact-checked the book.

If Martha's mistake is supposed to give the reader a sense of her character, I think there is not much to derive from it that we don't know already from the other signs about her. She says that she has worked for the New York-area unionized dockworkers, that her most recent client was sexually harassed by a high-paid executive, and that she has never worked anywhere other than lower Manhattan. These are not contexts in which you interact much with the minimum wage -- even when you "help[] change considerably -- and for the better -- the living standards of hundreds of thousands of people," as she says her old boss did.

I think if Robert Cerriere had overheard the minimum wage mistake -- and somehow knew himself that the rate was only $2.90 -- he would have taken advantage of it to taunt Martha. But that would not change the fact that she is rich as a result of trying to help people who are in disadvantaged relationships to their employers, while he is rich as a result of trying to help the employers.

-- AmandaBell - 15 Apr 2010

I doubt there's much to be read into her misquoting the minimum wage. I think the audience is meant to focus on the way she sizes up her life without knowing anything about her (other than her job and that she belongs to one of three or four possible ethnicities). It could be that she just rounded for the sake of doing easier math, or the editors could have used more recent figures. What made me do a double-take is the fact that this whole example or 'game' she plays, an attempt to 'figure out the entire political and economic picture by looking at one single employment relationship,' really just consists of stringing together a bunch of assumptions about patterned workplace injustice. She doesn't actually analyze anything about the relationship between her server and the restaurant management. How is it an exercise or a proof if the answer is predetermined, regardless of who the subject is?

On an unrelated note, and not that I mean to dispute your figures, but where did you find info about the 97 and 98 minimum wage jumps. Most sources I found said that those increases didn't happen until 2000.

-- JoshuaHochman - 16 Apr 2010

>>info about the 97 and 98 minimum wage jumps
Workers in New York City received the federal 1997 and 1998 increases. You're right that people in the rest of the state did not receive the increase until 2000.


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r4 - 17 Apr 2010 - 14:52:59 - NonaFarahnik
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