Low-Wage Workers, Progressive Dems Start Push for National Minimum Wage Hike

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Cynthia Murphy wants a raise. Progressive Democrats in the U.S. House want to get it for her.

Murphy, a well-spoken African-American woman with a daughter in college, has toiled at the Burger King in the Pentagon’s underground food mall for a decade. She earns $9.50 an hour and hasn’t had a raise, ever.

She’s had to take a second job to make ends meet, “and I use food stamps and Section 8” public housing subsidies, she adds. She also borrowed $5,000 so her daughter could start at a local college.

Raising her pay to $15 an hour over seven years, which is what the Dems want, would help her – and millions of other working women – a lot.

“The Republicans” who rule Congress “are refusing to raise our wages while cutting the programs we depend on,” Murphy told an outdoor press conference as the progressives launched their campaign for the Raise The Wage Act, introduced last year by Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and more than 100 others.

The measure would raise the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $15, in line with the “$15 and a union” campaign pushed by goodjobsnation.org, the Service Employees – who are trying to unionize the low-paid workers – and other unions. The last federal minimum wage hike was almost a decade ago. A majority of states have raised their minimums since, as has Washington, D.C.

Their measure (HR15) would also substitute the new higher minimum wage for the tipped wage, which now goes to servers and others who are supposed to earn extra from tips. That wage, $2.13 hourly, hasn’t increased in 27 years. Firms, notably restaurants, whose workers depend on tips, are supposed to make up the difference. Often, they don’t, costing workers billions of dollars. HR15 also abolishes the youth subminimum wage.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., introduced the minimum wage hike there (S1242), with at least a dozen Senate Democrats joining him. Both bills haven’t even had a hearing.

“Raising the wage will give more than 37 million Americans a long-overdue raise,” said Pocan, a Painters Union member who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

GOP and business claim a minimum wage hike would primarily benefit high school students working after class, but Pocan responded “workers under 20 are only 20 percent of minimum wage workers, and the average age of a minimum wage worker is 36.”

 The minimum wage workers are also mostly women, and that drew support for the hike from women’s groups, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, the Center for American Progress and others. All noted half of the 26 million full-time minimum-wage workers – and two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers, including part-timers -- are female, 11 million are parents and 4.5 million of them are single parents.

“President Trump and Speaker Ryan” – GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – “tell us the best way out of poverty is a job,” said CAP Poverty to Prosperity program director Rebecca Vallas. “But on $7.25 an hour, that’s not a way out.”

“The Republicans are puppets of the big corporations” who got Trump’s tax cut “while millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet. It’s disgraceful,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “In the Bay Area, 15 percent of my constituents are in poverty, as are 23 percent of African-Americans. Raising the wage would get women of color out of poverty.”

The Republicans “have done everything they can to kick workers in the teeth,” added Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., a member of Electrical Workers Local 441.

But while the workers held signs proclaiming “$15 and a union,” the theme of their “raise the wage” campaign, speakers stayed away from the “union” part, except for Murphy, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Will Fischer, an ex-Marine Iraq War veteran and executive director of the pro-union VoteVets.

The Republicans are unlikely to consider raising the minimum wage. That left Pocan and Murphy suggesting other ways to achieve it. He pitched making it a political issue. She urged Trump to act.

In an interview afterwards, Pocan said he and other progressive lawmakers “haven’t gotten around to” discussing specific strategies to move the minimum wage hike into law. McGovern tried to attach it to a budget bill several years ago, and lost on a party-line vote.

“The first thing we have to do is raise the profile of the issue,” Pocan said. “If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to change the faces in November,” by electing pro-worker Democrats.

Murphy demanded Trump “issue an executive order to have federal contracts only for companies that pay a living wage and recognize our right to organize a union.”

That may be unlikely: Trump’s predecessor, Democrat Barack Obama, issued an executive order telling federal contractors – such as the Burger King in the Pentagon mall – to pay workers a $10.10 hourly minimum wage. It said nothing about unionizing. And Trump dumped it.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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