Stop playing games with minimum wage

Labor, community groups vow to press forward for a real minimum wage hike

A Republican bill that hid a huge, wolfish tax break for the wealthy inside the sheep’s clothing of an increase in the minimum wage crashed and burned in the Senate on Aug. 3.

The failed measure, which would have handed the rich a $753 billion break in estate taxes in exchange for a modest boost in the federal minimum wage, had been sharply criticized by labor and community groups.

Maude Hurd, national president of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the GOP bill tried “to put a moral face on giveaways that would bankrupt the American dream.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, “The Senate told the Republican leadership in no uncertain terms to stop playing games with the minimum wage.”

“The estate tax bill is a poison pill that stands in the way of minimum wage workers getting a long overdue pay raise,” Sweeney continued.

The AFL-CIO and ACORN immediately mobilized their vast rank-and-file networks to push for a “clean” minimum wage bill in Congress that would boost the federal minimum from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25, with no strings attached.

They said another tax cut for Paris Hilton or Wal-Mart’s heirs is not what is required.

The vote on the Senate bill was 56-42, four short of the 60 needed for passage under Senate rules. Four Democrats voted for the Republican scheme, and three Republicans broke ranks and voted against it. Two Democrats did not vote on the measure.

According to the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, millions of working families would have paid dearly for the estate tax cut. The $753 billion budget hole would have forced reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, veterans programs and unemployment insurance.

On the other hand, a mere 8,200 beneficiaries of the proposed estate tax cut would have received an average of $1.3 million each.

While raising the minimum wage may be a political football inside the Washington Beltway, at the state level it is taking the form of a critical battle. Already 24 states and the District of Columbia — with D.C., Pennsylvania, Arkansas and North Carolina having just added their names to the list — have raised the minimum wage, after massive union-based, grassroots mobilizations.

As the November midterm elections approach, voters in Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Arizona and Montana will decide whether or not to increase their minimum wage.

Hundreds of labor and community activists delivered 530,300 signatures of registered Ohio voters to the secretary of state, Aug. 7, for a measure which would amend the state constitution to raise the minimum wage to $6.85 with a cost of living escalator. State law required 322,000 signatures.

“We really worked because this is life or death for thousands of hard working families in Ohio,” said Don Coulter, a coordinator for the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR/USW). Coulter worked over 28 years at the Timken steel mill in Canton, Ohio. When the mill closed, he was forced to retire.

“ACORN did a job,” Coulter said. “They got 270,000 signatures across the state. We worked at shopping centers and county fairs and inside some of the plants. We worked together, in coalition, and we got a half a million — half a million — signatures.

“Getting minimum wage on the ballot helps families immediately, but it also helps this year’s political campaigns,” he added. “It is part of a national effort to get workers to the polls in an off-year election.”

In Missouri, unions formed the core of the grassroots coalition that garnered 210,000 signatures on petitions to put raising the minimum wage on the November ballot. On Aug. 8, the secretary of state found 135,917 of the signatures to be valid, about 42,000 more than the required minimum. If approved by the voters, the minimum wage in Missouri will rise to $6.50 an hour with a cost of living increase each year.

“This is an issue of human dignity and common sense,” said Bob Soutier, secretary-treasurer of the Greater St. Louis AFL-CIO. An estimated 150,000 Missouri workers would get a raise if the law passes.

Volunteers in the Missouri campaign did more than petition. In late June, over 600 workers jammed St. Louis streets, protesting their Republican Sen. Jim Talent’s continuing opposition to raising the federal minimum wage. Talent was in town with President Bush for a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser. “It would take 97 weeks at minimum wage to equal 1 plate at your dinner tonight, Mr. Talent. A disgrace!” read a hand-painted sign a woman worker wore around her neck.

In Colorado, although the petitions are not yet certified, it appears that increasing the minimum will be on the ballot. Activists with Coloradans for a Fair Minimum Wage collected 120,000 signatures, almost double the number required. As in Ohio, the Colorado ballot initiative takes the form of a constitutional amendment.

The Colorado AFL-CIO is the hub of the coalition. “Workers in Colorado deserve an increase in the minimum wage, and I think it’s a great issue for candidates of either party to run on,” said coalition spokesman Brandon Hall.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce aggressively opposes any effort to increase the minimum wage.