Opinion

It’s Time to Start Passing Minimum-Wage Hike

The vicious cycle of Republican opposition to a wage increase and the empty promises of reform from Democrats must end, a job-rights advocate says.

Sarita Gupta is executive director of Jobs With Justice, which organizes voices from labor, local, student and faith communities for worker rights.
National Journal
Sarita Gupta
Feb. 18, 2014, 11:09 a.m.

Enough already! It’s time for our na­tion’s polit­ic­al lead­ers to stop talk­ing about rais­ing the fed­er­al min­im­um wage — an idea they’ve loved talk­ing about since 2007, the last time it was raised — and start ac­tu­ally do­ing something.

When run­ning for pres­id­ent in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama said, “I won’t be rais­ing the min­im­um wage every 10 years. We’re go­ing to raise the min­im­um wage every single year.” But two years later, Sen. Obama was Pres­id­ent Obama, and des­pite Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­it­ies in the House and Sen­ate, the min­im­um-wage laws re­mained un­changed.

The pres­id­ent fi­nally moved from talk to ac­tion in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress this year when he an­nounced that he will use his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to raise the min­im­um wage for work­ers on new fed­er­al con­tracts to $10.10 an hour. The de­cision came after a series of high-pro­file strikes and demon­stra­tions by em­ploy­ees of fed­er­al con­tract­ors earn­ing poverty wages, which ex­posed the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s role as a low-road em­ploy­er. But the ex­ec­ut­ive or­der — lim­ited in scope — shouldn’t let Con­gress off the hook for do­ing right by all work­ers in this coun­try.

Dur­ing his speech, the pres­id­ent also urged his col­leagues to ad­opt the pro­pos­al of Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Cal­if., which calls for up­dat­ing the fed­er­al min­im­um-wage law by rais­ing the wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. Ad­di­tion­ally, their bills would in­crease the tipped min­im­um wage from a paltry $2.13 to 70 per­cent of the reg­u­lar min­im­um wage — and, equally im­port­ant, would give the law teeth by in­dex­ing the wage hike to in­fla­tion.

Some politi­cians have been call­ing for an in­crease to the fed­er­al min­im­um wage for all work­ers since 2009, when the last hike was fully phased in. Law­makers from all over the polit­ic­al spec­trum are join­ing the choir on this is­sue. “Rais­ing the min­im­um wage can lift all boats,” said Sen. Robert Ca­sey, the cent­rist Demo­crat from Pennsylvania. Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee mem­ber Henry Bar­bour of Mis­sis­sippi has sug­ges­ted that his party should be open to a min­im­um-wage in­crease, if only to show the GOP is “sens­it­ized to the work­er in Amer­ica and their needs.” Even Ron Unz, the con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an who ran for gov­ernor of Cali­for­nia, has called for in­creas­ing the min­im­um wage in that state.

These are all rhet­or­ic­al steps in the right dir­ec­tion. But the ques­tion re­mains: When are we go­ing to ac­tu­ally pass a law? And not just an­oth­er in­cre­ment­al, sym­bol­ic in­crease, but one that provides a real, in­fla­tion-ad­jus­ted liv­able wage for mil­lions of hard­work­ing people who don’t have enough money in their pock­ets to take care of ba­sic ne­ces­sit­ies? Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive or­der is a good start, but it’s simply not enough, be­cause it leaves too many oth­er low-wage work­ers in the dark.

For those of us who care about work­ing people and our eco­nomy, rais­ing the fed­er­al min­im­um wage is a no-brain­er. It is widely un­der­stood to be one of the most ef­fect­ive ways to bring mil­lions of men and wo­men out of the shad­ows of poverty and in­to the light of eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity.

On the oth­er hand, in­ac­tion means we will all con­tin­ue to pay the high price of low wages. In the fast-food in­dustry alone, 52 per­cent of work­ers rely on aid from tax­pay­er-fun­ded pub­lic pro­grams like food stamps be­cause their wages are too low to make ends meet. Ac­cord­ing to the Berke­ley Labor Cen­ter, “The cost of pub­lic as­sist­ance to fam­il­ies of work­ers in the fast-food in­dustry is nearly $7 bil­lion per year.” That’s bil­lions of dol­lars an­nu­ally com­ing out of tax­pay­ers’ pock­ets to sub­sid­ize large, hugely prof­it­able cor­por­a­tions that simply don’t want to pay their work­ers a de­cent wage.

That’s why we need the law to catch up and re­quire cor­por­a­tions to do the right thing when it comes to pay­ing work­ers a reas­on­able wage. The cur­rent min­im­um wage — which was signed in­to law by Pres­id­ent George W. Bush — was set in 2007. So while wages have stayed the same, rent is high­er, gas is more ex­pens­ive, and the price of everything from day­care to a gal­lon of milk has in­creased as well.

Enough is enough. The vi­cious cycle of Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion to a wage in­crease and the empty prom­ises of re­form from Demo­crats don’t an­swer the call from work­ers — in­clud­ing the ma­jor­ity of voters. Many, many Amer­ic­ans want to see the min­im­um wage in­creased to help hard­work­ing fam­il­ies put food on the table and keep the lights on. If law­makers weasel out of rais­ing the min­im­um wage, or in­dex­ing a wage hike, we’re back at square one, doom­ing ourselves to more and more talk­ing while do­ing noth­ing to help mil­lions of Amer­ic­an work­ers.

Sar­ita Gupta is the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Jobs With Justice and the co­dir­ect­or of the Caring Across Gen­er­a­tions cam­paign.

The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial ef­fects of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion. Email us. Also, please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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