Labor Ready to Fight for Minimum-Wage Hike

But bill is likely to die in the Senate, despite Democrats’ push.

WASHINGTON - APRIL 18: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks during a rally at the Lafayette Square, north of the White House, April 18, 2011 in Washington, DC. Energy Action Coalition held a rally and a march to protest against corporations that pay no federal taxes. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jan. 20, 2014, 2 p.m.

They won’t get much help from Sen­ate or House Re­pub­lic­ans, but Demo­crats in the Sen­ate will be get­ting a boost from a co­ali­tion of labor groups as law­makers take up a fed­er­al min­im­um-wage bill.

“We think that in or­der to sur­vive in today’s eco­nomy the min­im­um wage is com­pletely in­ad­equate. We think [rais­ing it is] a mor­al im­per­at­ive,” said AFL-CIO polit­ic­al dir­ect­or Mi­chael Pod­horzer. “We also think it’s an eco­nom­ic im­per­at­ive.”

Labor uni­ons sup­por­ted con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats in the de­bate over ex­tend­ing un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­fore Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans blocked their ef­forts last week. AFL-CIO Pres­id­ent Richard Trumka even at­ten­ded an event at the Cap­it­ol with House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, and sim­il­ar events sur­round­ing the min­im­um-wage push are likely.

Yet des­pite the strong, elec­tion-year in­terest by Sen­ate Demo­crats and their al­lies, the bill ap­pears destined to die in the Sen­ate.

Hik­ing the min­im­um wage, which was last raised more than four years ago, is not on House Re­pub­lic­ans’ agenda. Neither are Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, angry over Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s strong-arm pro­ced­ur­al tac­tics, eager to let the meas­ure move for­ward.

“My read is that it fails to get 60 votes, which Re­id knows and hopes is the case, so that he can beat Re­pub­lic­ans over the head with it go­ing in­to the midterms,” one Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate aide said.

The Sen­ate meas­ure, sponsored by Re­id and Health, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, and Pen­sions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Tom Har­kin of Iowa, would boost the wage from the cur­rent level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10, in three in­cre­ments over two and a half years.

The bill, which by­passed the com­mit­tee pro­cess to cut off “em­bar­rass­ing” Re­pub­lic­an amend­ments, as Har­kin put it, is ex­pec­ted to make it to the floor some­time in Feb­ru­ary, ac­cord­ing to a Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide. The White House has en­dorsed the meas­ure.

“We view the fed­er­al min­im­um wage le­gis­la­tion as an ex­tremely im­port­ant first step,” Pod­horzer said. “We are act­ively in­volved in work­ing to in­crease the state min­im­um wages and work­ing to­ward a liv­ing wage.”

Yet op­pos­i­tion has already sur­faced. Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der, the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an on the HELP Com­mit­tee, has philo­soph­ic­al ob­jec­tions to in­creas­ing the min­im­um wage, view­ing it as an eco­nom­ic drag.

“The min­im­um wage is a good-sound­ing at­tempt to fix the price of labor. In a mar­ket sys­tem, what that usu­ally does is cre­ate a short­age — it cre­ates less,” Al­ex­an­der said at a hear­ing on the min­im­um wage in June.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans also see a fed­er­al-versus-state is­sue. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an and a mem­ber of the HELP Com­mit­tee, says he plans to vote against the meas­ure, ar­guing that wages should be set by states.

While Demo­crats would prefer to see the policy en­acted, they also be­lieve there’s a polit­ic­al ad­vant­age built in­to the is­sue for them. The min­im­um-wage in­crease is part of a lar­ger Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic push to fo­cus on eco­nom­ic is­sues they view as polit­ic­ally ad­vant­age­ous. That strategy will in­clude bring­ing the un­em­ploy­ment-ex­ten­sion bill that Re­pub­lic­ans blocked last week back to the floor, Demo­crats an­nounced last week.

“I think it’s really good policy and that’s what makes it good polit­ics,” Pod­horzer said. “I don’t think you’d have the kind of in­terest that’s driv­ing if it were just a cam­paign is­sue.”

But it is pos­sible to view the push for a min­im­um-wage hike and an ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits as a Demo­crat­ic at­tempt to go on of­fense. In­deed, Re­id said last week he ex­pects con­stitu­ents to put pres­sure on Re­pub­lic­an law­makers dur­ing the break. At a re­cent event, Har­kin even in­voked a single moth­er who works two jobs to provide for her chil­dren, un­der­scor­ing the vis­cer­al nature the min­im­um-wage de­bate of­ten takes on.

“The Re­pub­lic­an Party may not un­der­stand the chal­lenges that this single moth­er is fa­cing, but the Amer­ic­an people cer­tainly do,” Har­kin said.

But Re­pub­lic­ans so far are un­fazed by the polit­ic­al joust­ing. Asked wheth­er he’s con­cerned that Re­id plans to turn the min­im­um wage in­to a polit­ic­al cudgel to use against the GOP, Burr smiled.

“He’s made a polit­ic­al is­sue out of everything,” Burr said. “That’s not an earth-shat­ter­ing thing.”

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