Labor to Senate: Raise minimum wage with no strings attached

WASHINGTON — The broad labor-led coalition supporting the Democrats’ “100 Hour Agenda” in the 110th Congress hailed the 315-116 House vote Jan. 10 to raise the minimum wage to $7.25, and urged the Senate also to approve the increase without more tax giveaways to big business.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney praised the House vote but warned that President George W. Bush insists new tax cuts for the rich be added. “Business has enjoyed hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts since Bush took office while health care, secure retirement and the minimum wage have all been on government’s back burner,” Sweeney told a Capitol Hill news conference Jan. 10.

He called on senators “to reject corporate poison pills and vote for a fair, long overdue raise in the minimum wage … with no strings attached.”

Change America Now (CAN), a coalition of 40 organizations — among them the National Council of Churches, AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, United States Student Association and NOW — has mobilized grassroots support for the 100-hour agenda. “I think our work has been incredibly important and we are seeing the effects of it right now,” said CAN spokesperson Jeremy Funk. “By this weekend we will have organized 50 field events across the country. We convinced 82 Republicans to vote with all the Democrats to raise the minimum wage, a veto-proof margin.”

Funk said the actions included news conferences on the doorsteps of Republican lawmakers, town hall meetings, vigils and demonstrations and hundreds of thousands of telephone calls and e-mails. “We have generated huge bipartisan support for an increase in the minimum wage. Now we are exerting pressure on the Senate to pass a clean bill and send it to the president’s desk.”

The multiracial low-income advocacy group ACORN, a CAN affiliate, joined in the mobilization. Vanessa Gueringer, president of ACORN’s chapter in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, told the World in a telephone interview, “An increase in the minimum wage will help 15 million workers across the country. It will help so many low-income workers here in New Orleans struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. It will encourage people to return to New Orleans to rebuild and get on with their lives.”

Very few people have received the federal assistance Bush promised for rebuilding their homes, she charged.

Gueringer, her husband and daughter are living in a FEMA trailer parked on their property in the 9th Ward where she has lived her whole life. “I’ve received very little from my insurance company. We’re still waiting for the ‘Road to Home’ [federal] money to repair our house.” But with the Democrats in the majority they expect quick action now.

“People across the country have decided we need to go in another direction,” she said. “The Republicans had power for so long. It’s been 10 years since the minimum wage was raised, but the Congress gave themselves raises 10 times. Hundreds of billions have been spent in Iraq, but there is a lack of funding for us here at home. Why hasn’t the rebuilding of New Orleans been addressed?”

CAN is also mobilizing support for the other economic measures in the 100-hour agenda, including a bill approved 255-170 by the House Jan. 12 to require the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies for the Medicare Part D drug plan.

The House also approved 253-174 a bill to authorize embryonic stem cell research, reversing Bush’s veto of a similar bill last year. Also passed 356-71 was a bill to cut in half over five years the interest rate on federally subsidized college student loans.

On the day Congress convened, lawmakers passed by a 430-1 vote an ethics reform bill terminating gifts, free meals and free transportation on corporate jets to curb influence peddling by corporate lobbyists in Washington. Also high on the 100-hour agenda is repealing billions of dollars in tax subsidies doled out to the profit-swollen oil and gas corporations, giveaways authored by Vice President Dick Cheney’s secretive Energy Policy Task Force.

Many if not all these measures are now pending in the Senate, where Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to obstruct them. Bush has also threatened to veto the bill to reform Medicare Part D and the stem cell research bill. Funk said this Republican obstructionism underlines the urgency of grassroots pressure for passage by strong bipartisan votes.

Monique Morrisey, a spokesperson for the labor-supported Economic Policy Institute, told the World, “Initiatives to raise the minimum wage were on the ballot in six states last Nov. 7 and voters approved all of them by overwhelming bipartisan majorities. Bush may have other issues on his mind than vetoing a minimum wage increase when it is put on his desk. He should sign it.”

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