Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has a new crusade for 2013—raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, where it has stagnated since President Obama took office in 2009.
“This could be one of the major economic issues this year,” Nader said in an interview with National Journal Daily on Friday.
“It’s gone from a blanket ‘no talk’ because Obama didn’t raise it [the issue], and the word in the Democratic Party was if Obama doesn’t raise it, none of the candidates raise it,” Nader said. “But when he raised it in the State of the Union Address, the press started writing about it,” and a number of bills were introduced in Congress.
Nader, whose campaign to improve auto safety in the 1960s made him America’s most prominent consumer advocate, is working to build coalitions in Congress around measures to raise the minimum wage—a goal that has support from 70 percent of the public in most polls.
One bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 was introduced in both chambers last month by Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif.
A better alternative, Nader said, is a bill sponsored by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., that would pull the minimum wage up to $10.60 an hour, which would be the equivalent of where it stood in 1968 ($1.60), adjusted for inflation.
“Our motto is the most modest one we’ve ever had: ‘Catching Up With 1968,’ ” Nader said. If the minimum wage went to $10.60 an hour today, more than 30 million workers—or about a quarter of the U.S. workforce—would immediately get a raise, he said.
Nader and longtime associate John Richard are putting pressure on the biggest employers of low-wage workers in the country to get behind the effort.
“We’ve been in negotiations with Wal-Mart, trying to get them to endorse raising the minimum wage,” Richard said. “Not because they’re interested in doing something that will help people, necessarily, but for their own bottom line—they would profit enormously. If it was $12 an hour, they would be making money in every single store in the country, far beyond what they’re making now, because those people spend instantly.”
“They’re going to spend it in Walmart!” Nader added. Yet the company’s executives—including CEO Mike Duke—who, according to Nader, makes $11,000 an hour—don’t seem to get it, he said.
“Wal-Mart’s asset is they think most of the people they hire are flotsam and jetsam and couldn’t get a regular job anyway,” he said. “So they think they’re doing people a favor, and they think they’re a major antipoverty group. There’s a huge self-righteousness there, but as John pointed out, it’s against their own interest.”
Another giant retailer, Costco, has already boosted wages to $11.50 an hour for its new employees and has found that “they’re more motivated, there’s less turnover, and you get better workers,” Nader said.
More and more businesses are starting to realize the Costco model works—a coalition of restaurants is expected to announce this week that it supports raising the federal minimum wage, Richard said.
But the message has been much slower to resonate in Washington, Nader said, noting in particular “the bizarre silence of organized labor.”
Nader said he and his supporters recently went to the AFL-CIO headquarters near the White House to protest the labor coalition’s failure to champion a higher minimum wage, and offered passersby free copies of former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s book, America Needs a Raise. “A majority of people coming out of AFL refused to take it,” Nader said. “It was free, and this is their former boss! They don’t have to worry about [the minimum wage], but they’re dragged down by it.”
Even worse, in Nader’s view, is the lack of vocal support for the issue among congressional Democrats.
“From the [Democratic] Party point of view, this is the best issue because the Republicans won’t bend, they’re so clenched-teeth on this,” he said. “This is a very powerful issue, because it’s simple to understand and it gives something to millions of workers.”
This article appears in the April 15, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Nader Prods Wal-Mart, Dems on Minimum Wage.