WASHINGTON, DCâ€”When President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour in hisÂ State of the Union speechÂ on February 12, the call came as a surprise to many wage-increase advocates.
Jen Kern, the minimum wage campaign coordinator at theÂ National Employment Law Project, one of the largest advocacy groups on wage issues, says that her organization was consulted only â€śtwo hours aheadâ€ť of the State of the Union speech.
â€śWe had been pushing him on this for years, since he mentioned it in his campaign in 2008, and never really heard anything from him,â€ť says Kern. â€śSo, yeah, we were surprised.â€ť
â€śWe were given little advance notice,â€ť says Bill Samuel, government affairs director for the AFL-CIO, laborâ€™s main coalition. â€śI think this is a strategy that the White House has often employed before a State of the Union. I believe that was intentional. It wasnâ€™t a bad motive. I think they decided this should be good news.â€ť
In another indication that the president didnâ€™t consult with allies before selecting the $9-an-hour figure, Congressional Democrats Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.), whoÂ proposed an increaseÂ to $9.80-an-hour in last yearâ€™s legislative session, were already at work on a new bill to raise the minimum to $10.10. They issued a joint response to the State of the Union applauding the presidentâ€™s move but questioning the $9-an-hour figure, saying: â€śWhile we believe the presidentâ€™s proposal is lower than what is needed, there is no question that last night he threw the doors open for a robust discussion on the importance of raising the minimum wage.â€ť
Harkin and Miller, who serve as the ranking Democrats on the Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over wage increases,Â officially introducedÂ their $10.10 proposal on March 5. According to a press release issued by Harkinâ€™s office, â€śIf the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be worth approximately $10.56 per hour todayâ€¦ Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour will increase GDP by nearly $33 billion over the course of three years as workers spend their raises in their local businesses and communities.â€ť
The $1.10-an-hour difference between the presidentâ€™s proposal and Congressional Democratsâ€™ plan would have a cumulative effect. Under both plans, once the minimum wage rate is set, it will thereafter be adjusted as a percentage of inflation, and is unlikely to make a jump as big as $1.10 an hour in one year.
The lack of coordination between labor, the White House and Congressional Democrats appears to continue in the wake of the Miller-Harkin bill. The AFL-CIO isnâ€™t sure whether the White House supports the increase to $10.10 an hour. â€śI have not heard anything positive or negative. Itâ€™s my assumption they are fine with a higher number if itâ€™s possible in the House or Senate,â€ť says the AFL-CIOâ€™s Bill Samuel.
The White House would not respond to inquiries about whether it supports the Miller-Harkin proposal. However, in aÂ blog post forÂ The Huffington PostÂ on Thursday, Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris reiterated the presidentâ€™s call to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. White House spokespersonÂ Matthew Lehrich toldÂ In These TimesÂ by email,Â â€śThe President applauds Senator Harkin, Representative Miller for getting this debate started in Congress. He stands ready to work with Congress to pass legislation to increase the minimum wage as soon as possibleâ€”both parties should agree that hard-working families should not be living below the poverty line.â€ť
Meanwhile, four weeks after the State of the Union, the Presidentâ€™s grassroots political advocacy arm, Organizing for America, has yet to meet with the AFL-CIO to discuss how to coordinate mobilizations on the state level to win the minimum wage fight.
â€śWe haven’t talked specifically about their strategy, but we will soon,â€ť says Samuel. â€śWe have a meeting coming up with OFA where I am sure this will be discussed, but we have not had any formal meetings. There has been some talk about using their grassroots structure of OFA and we are certainly preparing to use our grassroots structure.â€ť
Organizing for America did not respond to request for comment.
Despite the apparent lack of coordination so far, labor is optimistic that the president will genuinely push for a minimum wage increase.
â€śThe president is taking on the conservatives and most of the Republican Party to do this,â€ť says Samuel. â€śItâ€™s always exciting to be in a fight that certainly if we win can help so many people. I think they are serious about it.â€ť
This article was originally posted on theÂ Working In These TimesÂ on March 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author:Â Mike Elk is a Pittsburgh native and labor journalist for In These Times. His investigative work has been cited on the front page of the New York Times and debated by Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters on ABCâ€™s The View. Elk won a Sidney Award for his coverage of how corporations crafted legislation to exempt prison labor from U.S. minimum wage laws.