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
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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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