Senate battle on minimum wage hike to erupt after Easter

WASHINGTON (PAI)–The Senate will vote on raising the nation’s minimum wage after lawmakers return from their Easter-Passover recess later this month, its sponsor says. And – to nobody’s great surprise – the issue is becoming even more politicized than it was before.

That announcement by Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, brought cheers from a jammed Capitol rally on April 3 after the labor-backed “Raise The Wage” bus ended its 11-state tour by halting at the foot of Capitol Hill.

But it also gives unionists and their allies several more weeks to lobby lawmakers to raise the wage. That recess “is the time to raise hell and raise a ruckus” to force lawmakers to vote to raise the wage, Harkin declared.

“If we don’t win this vote, we’ll bring it up again,” Harkin added. “And if we don’t win that vote, we’ll bring it up again. And if we don’t win that vote, we’ll bring it up in November and win at the polls.”

Unionists and minimum wage workers got off the bus to tell Harkin, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama administration Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and other supportive unionists and lawmakers stories of trying to survive on $7.25 an hour – or, in the case of workers who depend on tips, far less.

Harkin and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., are leading the charge for raising the minimum wage in three 95-cents-a-year steps to $10.10 an hour in 2016 and indexing it to inflation after that. The tipped wage, now $2.13 hourly, hasn’t risen since 1991. It would rise gradually to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.

Millions of workers would benefit from the hike, speakers said. Shuler noted previously that 70 percent of minimum wage workers are working women. Pelosi noted the average minimum wage worker is 30 years old. They’re usually single mothers, not teenagers, she added. And almost half of minimum wage workers have college degrees, other information shows.

“For five years, I never got a raise.” graying African-American worker Ruben Jones told the crowd, even though he works two minimum-wage jobs in the D.C. suburbs. Halting at times to control his emotions, Jones said the minimum wage pays so little that “I have two children and four grandchildren in Ocean City (Md.) and I can’t even afford to go visit them.

“I’m living with my mother because I can’t afford an apartment of my own. I do everything in my job I possibly can to treat my customers right. To work like this and be treated like this is a shame. Please raise the minimum wage. We all need it.”

Tipped workers have it even worse, said Anna Hovland, a server at two D.C.-area restaurants and a member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

“My co-workers are struggling,” said Hovland. “One with two children works double shifts regularly. It’s the only way we can support ourselves. And in one of my jobs, I worked five hours a day, for a month, and cleared $40. And servers usually receive paychecks, after taxes are taken out, that say zero-point-zero-zero,” she added. “That’s why I support the fair minimum wage act.”

“Your stories are why we do this work,” Shuler exclaimed. “The bus represents something very very real around the country: Working people are on the move, whether they’re union or non-union. A higher minimum wage and reform to strengthen collective bargaining are critical to reestablish the link between wages and productivity.”

Unionists, lawmakers and Perez chimed in with their support, and with more stories from minimum-wage workers. Perez had interviewed a Newark Airport worker who toiled at the minimum wage. “He didn’t get a raise for eight years until New Jersey voters gave him one” by voting last year to hike the Garden State’s minimum wage.

“The whole point of the Fair Labor Standards Act” – the 75-year-old law that established the minimum wage and overtime pay – “is to set a wage floor so that people don’t have to live in poverty,” Perez explained.

But thanks to Senate GOP filibusters and adamant opposition from the GOP House majority, past minimum wage hikes, though backed by labor and the Obama administration, have died. That led New Jersey and many other states to raise their minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 hourly. Connecticut, weeks ago, became the first state to enact the $10.10 minimum, Perez said.

And the same prospect looms again. One union legislative representative told Press Associates afterwards that Harkin is still several votes short of the 60 he needs to break yet another planned GOP filibuster. One key fence-sitter, he added, is Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who touts his own “compromise” plan now pending in his home state, but not the federal minimum wage hike.

“And the House is another world to itself,” the legislative rep added.

Photo: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., left, confers with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., as Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 3, to urge approval for raising the minimum wage. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.