Democrats in Congress unveil $15 an hour minimum wage bill
Tiffany Lowe, a working single mom at a KFC fast-food eatery in Memphis, spoke for those 40 million workers who would benefit from a minimum wage hike. | $15 and a Union

WASHINGTON—Backed by dozens of low-wage workers clad in white “$15 and a union” sweatshirts, a united phalanx of top congressional Democrats, plus Bernie Sanders, formally unveiled legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.

With support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and more than 180 House Democrats—including active union members Mark Pocan of Wisconsin (Painters) and David Norcross of New Jersey (IBEW), who both spoke—the measure is expected to sail through the new Democratic-run House. The only question there is when.

After that is another matter.

“We are coming together to recognize fundamental concerns of American working families,” Pelosi told a Jan. 16 rally-cum-press conference. “The minimum wage is no longer a living wage” as it was 50 years ago, added Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Raising the minimum wage would benefit an estimated 40 million workers directly and millions more indirectly, the lawmakers said. It was one of the key planks touted by many of the progressive Democrats elected in the November sweep which returned the House to Democratic control.

Most minimum wage hike beneficiaries are working women, minorities, or both and—contrary to one Republican and right-wing lie—fewer than 10 percent are teenagers. And 85 percent of child care workers earn less than $15 hourly, Sanders said.

“When we put money in the pockets of American workers, they spend it, benefiting Main Street, too,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., new chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, which will work on the legislation.

Tiffany Lowe, a working single mom at a KFC fast-food eatery in Memphis, spoke for those 40 million workers who would benefit, interrupting the parade of lawmakers.

“Eighteen years ago, my first job in fast food paid $6.55 an hour. Now it’s $7.50. Many times, I sit in the store after working hours because I have no choice” as she has to wait for her children’s school to end and can’t afford child care. She also struggles to pay for other basic needs.

After naming other low-paid fast food workers she knows, the young African-American woman declared: “Everyone who works, no matter where they’re from, deserves to be paid enough to live a decent life.”

Right now, they aren’t. Studies show the current federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, would let a single mother and two kids pay for food and an apartment in only one state, Arkansas. Congress hasn’t raised the wage since the Democrats took over in 2007, with those hikes ending two years later. They lost Congress in 2010 and haven’t run it since.

That last hike to $7.25 “was not enough then and it is not enough now,” Hoyer said.

The Democrats’ Raise The Wage legislation would increase the current federal minimum, which many states and cities have already exceeded on their own, by $1 an hour hikes from now through 2024.  It would also index the minimum wage to rises in the median wage after that.

And it would eliminate the “tipped minimum” and give tipped workers—servers, bellhops, non-union baggage handlers, etc.—the regular minimum wage, not their current minimum of $2.13.  Bosses are supposed to make up the difference between a worker’s tips and the minimum wage, but many bosses pocket the cash instead. Wage theft from the lowest-paid workers runs into the millions of dollars.

Sanders, the Vermont Independent and lead Senate sponsor of the minimum wage hike, thanked the “Fight for $15 and a union” workers, whose movement started in fast food restaurants in Manhattan several years ago and has spread nationwide. It’s also forced some big companies—including McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, both notorious for low pay—to raise the wages of some of their workers.

“You made this day possible and because of your efforts, we will win,” Sanders said, turning to applaud the group. “It’s not a radical idea to have an economy that works for all of us, not just those on the top.”

But while the minimum wage hike drew enthusiastic support from both the ruling House Dems and from Sanders and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.—top Democrat on that chamber’s Labor Committee—its outlook in the GOP-run Senate is uncertain.

“Many of the CEOs fighting the minimum wage increase have earned as much money in these several weeks” of January “as their workers will earn, combined, the whole year,” Pelosi explained. The Senate’s ruling Republicans listen to those CEOs.

And a front group, the “Job Creators Network,” took out a full-page ad in Politico, opposing raising the minimum wage. Its members include chambers of commerce, and two powerful radical right groups: the National Federation of Independent Business and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The network claimed raising the minimum wage would not only cost jobs, again contrary to evidence, but deprive minimum wage workers of the first rung on a ladder to $50,000-a-year jobs.

The only union president at the press conference, Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees, told People’s World afterwards that SEIU has a plan to counter that business lobbying: Full-court SEIU pressure on GOP senators whose states host big firms that have voluntarily raised their pay.

And the union plans town hall meetings nationwide and a mass demonstration in D.C. in May to descend on Congress and demand a minimum wage hike.

“Our members will be engaging in this in every way they can,” she added.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.