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Labor and Allies, Surprised By Obama’s $9 Minimum Wage Proposal, Scramble to Coordinate

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photo_86504WASHINGTON, DC—When President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour in his State of the Union speech on February 12, the call came as a surprise to many wage-increase advocates.

Jen Kern, the minimum wage campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, one of the largest advocacy groups on wage issues, says that her organization was consulted only “two hours ahead” of the State of the Union speech.

“We had been pushing him on this for years, since he mentioned it in his campaign in 2008, and never really heard anything from him,” says Kern. “So, yeah, we were surprised.”

“We were given little advance notice,” says Bill Samuel, government affairs director for the AFL-CIO, labor’s main coalition. “I think this is a strategy that the White House has often employed before a State of the Union. I believe that was intentional. It wasn’t a bad motive. I think they decided this should be good news.”

In another indication that the president didn’t consult with allies before selecting the $9-an-hour figure, Congressional Democrats Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.), who proposed an increase to $9.80-an-hour in last year’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 president’s move but questioning the $9-an-hour figure, saying: “While we believe the president’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.”

Harkin and Miller, who serve as the ranking Democrats on the Senate and House committees with jurisdiction over wage increases, officially introduced their $10.10 proposal on March 5. According to a press release issued by Harkin’s office, “If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be worth approximately $10.56 per hour today… 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.”

The $1.10-an-hour difference between the president’s proposal and Congressional Democrats’ 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 isn’t sure whether the White House supports the increase to $10.10 an hour. “I have not heard anything positive or negative. It’s my assumption they are fine with a higher number if it’s possible in the House or Senate,” says the AFL-CIO’s Bill Samuel.

The White House would not respond to inquiries about whether it supports the Miller-Harkin proposal. However, in a blog post for The Huffington Post on Thursday, Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris reiterated the president’s call to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. White House spokesperson Matthew Lehrich told In These Times by email, “The 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 possible—both parties should agree that hard-working families should not be living below the poverty line.”

Meanwhile, four weeks after the State of the Union, the President’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.

“We haven’t talked specifically about their strategy, but we will soon,” says Samuel. “We 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.”

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.

“The president is taking on the conservatives and most of the Republican Party to do this,” says Samuel. “It’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.”

This article was originally posted on the Working In These Times on March 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: 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 ABC’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.

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Most Minimum Wage Earners Are Women

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Credit: Joe Kekeris
Credit: Joe Kekeris

One of the stats that always amazes is this: If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with the rising cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.52 per hour today.

Instead, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That translates to $15,080 per year, below the poverty line for a family of three—if the work is full-time.

Stunning as that is, it gets even worse when you realize that the majority of those paid the minimum wage are women: In 2011, more than 62 percent of minimum wage workers were women, compared with only 38 percent of male minimum wage workers, according to a new report by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

It’s especially bad that women make up the majority of minimum wage earners because women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a typical man earns. Women of color are far more likely to hold low-wage jobs than men, and two-thirds of mothers now are either the breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. Their lower wages mean they will receive less from Social Security, their primary source of retirement income.

Slightly more than 2.5 million women earn the minimum wage or less, while about 1.5 million men do.

Pointedly, the report notes:

From 1968 to 2010, incomes for the top 1 percent of earners increased by 110 percent, but the inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage has fallen by 31 percent. If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with the rising cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.52 per hour today.

But these same 1 percenters are some of those who block efforts at the local and national levels to raise the minimum wage. In fact, research has shown no job loss results from reasonable minimum wage increases, even when the economy is struggling.

On the contrary, a minimum wage increase boosts consumer spending and can improve the nation’s weak economy by growing demand through increased purchasing power.

This blog originally appeared in ALC-CIO on June 21, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union (the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism (covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia) she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

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Ohio Senate Republicans Attempt To Gut State Minimum Wage Law

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waldron_travis_bioOhio is one of 17 states that require workers to be paid above the minimum wage mandated by federal law. But Ohio Senate Republicans are working to limit the number of people eligible to earn that wage, attaching an amendment to an omnibus budget bill that would circumvent the law and prevent an untold number of workers from collecting the state-mandated minimum wage.

In 2006, Ohio voters approved an amendment to the state constitution setting the state’s minimum wage at $6.85 an hour with a built-in increase attached to inflation each year. The current minimum wage in Ohio increased to $7.40 an hour this year, $0.15 higher than the $7.25 an hour required by federal law.working-america

The amendment by state Senate Republicans would reduce the number of workers eligible for the state minimum wage, making only those covered by the looser federal law eligible to earn Ohio’s minimum wage:

(Image courtesy of Plunderbund)

The Legislative Service Commission, which evaluates legislation in Ohio, said the amendment “may result in fewer individuals subject to the minimum wage.”

As Plunderbund notes, Ohio Republicans, led by Gov. John Kasich (R), are already facing the remarkable unpopularity of Senate Bill 5, which rolls back collective bargaining rights for public employees, including police officers and firefighters. Now they have chosen to further their attacks on workers by targeting a law that was approved by voters in a referendum just five years ago.

But the attack on minimum wage laws is hardly unique to Ohio.

Since it became law, Republican lawmakers have waged various attacks on federal minimum wage legislation, falsely attacking it as a burden on small businesses and saying it stunts job creation, despite a lack of evidence on back up those claims. One of the Senate’s biggest critics of the minimum wage was former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), who is currently contemplating a run for president. And in 2007, Senate Republicans demanded that any increase in the minimum wage be accompanied by a tax cut for small businesses. They were successful, and increased the minimum wage to its current amount of $7.25 by offsetting the increase with $4.8 billion in small business tax breaks

Other conservatives have included the minimum wage among the many federal programs they view as unconstitutional overreaches into state’s rights, similar to federal child labor laws and federal safety standards.

Meanwhile, a recent study from Michigan showed that a worker making the minimum wage does not earn enough each week to support him or herself. According to the report, in Michigan, where the minimum wage is also $7.40, a single worker with no children would need to make more than $12 an hour to cover basic food, shelter, clothing, and transportation costs. A single mother with two children, meanwhile, would need to make $24.49 an hour — more than three times the minimum wage — to support herself and her family.

This Blog Originally Appeared in Think Progress on June 1, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

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Minimum Wage Raises Us All

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve explored a variety of proposals for additional federal stimulus measures. The federal government could make greater investments in repairing public infrastructure; fund the construction of affordable housing; extend tax credits to employers who increase employee health coverage; provide incentives for states to expand access to food stamps, welfare, and Medicaid; or even create a mass public jobs program. So far, none of those proposals is in the cards. But one overlooked recovery measure is already underway: the minimum wage increase scheduled for July 2009.

A new research brief from Kai Filion at the Economic Policy Institute highlights the stimulative impact of raising the minimum wage.

Remember that back in 2007, Congress obliged President Bush to sign a long-delayed minimum wage increase into law by attaching it to a must-pass war appropriations measure. After ten years in which the value of the minimum wage was continuously eroded by inflation, Congress raised the minimum from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour in 2007. In 2008, it went up to $6.55. Next month, it’s headed up to $7.25. And the economy is benefiting. So far, minimum wage increases have generated $4.9 billion in spending according to Filion, while the next increase will produce $5.5 billion in additional spending. As Filion succinctly explains “by increasing workers’ take-home pay, families gain both financial security and an increased ability to purchase goods and services, thus creating jobs for other Americans.”

The issue brief also takes on the most familiar minimum wage misconception – that raising pay inherently means increasing unemployment. Surveying a bevy of recent studies that have failed to detect significant increases in unemployment when the minimum wage rises, the issue brief considers factors like improved productivity, better employee retention and the stimulative effect of increased spending which may help explain why, in practice, jobs don’t disappear when low pay gets a mandatory boost.

The minimum wage increase all queued up and ready for July is good news, but of course there’s more policy work to be done. During the campaign President Obama pledged to seek an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, a measure that would provide great additional stimulus if the first steps began soon. Add that to the stimulus policy wish list.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This article originally appeared in the DMI Blog on June 11, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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