The Senate voted 94-3 last week to increase the federal minimum wage to $7.25 over two years from the current $5.15 per hour, but in a maneuver by Republicans it tied the hike to corporate tax breaks and delayed passage of the bill into law.
The Senate vote came on the heels of passage of the wage hike by the House in a “clean” bill that simply raised the minimum wage.
The wage increase, if it becomes law, will be the first in 10 years and will represent a victory for Democrats and the labor movement, who made it a key plank in the midterm election campaign that resulted in loss by the Republican ultra-right of both houses of Congress.
The huge margin notwithstanding, several roadblocks put up by the Republicans must now be cleared before the measure becomes law. The immediate result of the Republican moves is that Democratic leaders in the Senate are potentially now in conflict with Democratic leaders in the House who passed the “clean” bill.
Democratic leaders in the Senate say they cannot get the Republican support they need without adding the corporate tax breaks.
That has forced Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, into having to negotiate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and with Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Senate Republicans are continuing to insist that the bill will not go through without tax breaks for the corporations, and President Bush has backed that position.
A presidential veto has not been ruled out.
Labor and its allies see approval of the minimum wage hike as only one step in the fight for a true living wage.
They say that $7.25 an hour, although it eases some pain, does not solve the problems faced by workers and their families.
The Rev. Dr. Paul H. Slury, national chairman of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, said passage of the bill will be “a significant step toward the day when all American workers earn a living wage, the day when a job will keep you out of poverty, not in it, but we still have a long way to go.”
Let Justice Roll is a national coalition of 91 religious, labor and community organizations devoted not just to a minimum wage increase but to the fight for a living wage.
It now takes the average worker 365 days to earn what many CEOs earn in one day.
John Niccolai, president of Local 464A of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, pointed to reports that Exxon Mobil and Shell, the two largest oil companies, posted record profits in 2006.
“Exxon’s profit of $39.5 billion broke the record it set last year for the largest profit ever by an American corporation,” he said. “Why are we talking about tax breaks for corporations? The gap between the working poor and the rich is an obscenity. The minimum wage raise is the first step — after that we need to make it easier to unionize and we can then fight for a living wage for everyone.
“When they tell you they can’t pay living wages, you tell them they have no business running a business,” Niccolai said. “A good union job is something all workers should have.”
A community service staffer for Rep. Rangel said, “The Republicans must be exposed for what they are doing, giving lip service to an increase in the minimum wage and then using tricks to delay its passage.”