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Don’t 30 Million Workers Deserve 1968 Wages?

Time for a Raise

by RALPH NADER

Thirty million American workers arise, you have nothing to lose but some of your debt!

Wednesday morning, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) introduced the “Catching Up to 1968 Act of 2012” (H.R. 5901) – legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $10 per hour. The present minimum wage is $7.25, way below the unrealistically low federal poverty definition of $18,123 per year for a family of three. Adjusted for inflation, the 1968 minimum wage today would be a little above $10 per hour.

Together with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, I was pleased to be with Rep. Jackson at a news conference to explain this long-overdue necessity for millions of hard-pressed, working Americans of all political persuasions.

The policy behind the minimum wage, first enacted in 1938 under President Franklin Roosevelt, was to provide a minimally livable wage. This implied at least keeping up with inflation, if not with new living expenses not envisioned seventy-five years ago. While businesses like Walmart and McDonalds have been raising their prices and executive compensation since 1968, these companies have received a windfall from a diminishing real minimum wage paid to their workers.

The economics behind the Jackson bill are strongly supportive of moral and equitable arguments. Most economists agree that what our ailing economy needs is more
consumer demand for goods and services which will create jobs. Tens of billions of dollars flowing from a $10 minimum wage will be spent by poor families and workers almost immediately.

Historically, polls have registered around 70 percent of Americans favoring a minimum wage keeping up with inflation. That number includes many Republican workers who can be consoled by learning that both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, during their political careers, have supported adjusting the minimum wage.

Were the Democrats in Congress to make this a banner issue for election year 2012, their adversaries, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senator Mitch O’Connell (R-Ky.), would not be able to hold 100 percent of their Republicans on this popular issue. That means the bill’s backers could override these two rigid ideologues – so-called public servants – who make nearly $200 per hour plus luscious pension, health insurance, life insurance and other benefits.

President Obama, who has turned his back on many worker issues, can champion his promise in 2008 to press for a minimum wage of $9.50 by 2011 as well as benefit his campaign by helping people who have lost trust in government and their enthusiasm over Obama’s “hope and change.” Getting the attention of 30 million potential voters can change the dynamics of a tediously repetitive Obama-Romney campaign.

A debate over the minimum wage throws a more acute spotlight on the gigantic pay of the big corporate bosses who make $11,000 to $20,000 per hour! Their average pay was up another 6 percent in 2011 along with record profits for their companies.

If the Democrats want intellectual heft to rebut the carping, craven objections of the corporatist think tanks and trade associations, headed by bosses making big time pay themselves, they cannot do better than to refer to Alan Krueger, the former Princeton professor and now chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers to President Obama, who is the leading scholar behind inflation-adjusted minimum wages producing net job growth.

Moreover, there is no need to offset an inflation-adjusted minimum wage with lower taxes on smaller business. Since Obama took office there have been 17 tax cuts enacted for small businesses.

Many organizations with millions of members around the country are on the record, if not on the ramparts, as favoring an inflation-adjusted increase in the federal minimum wage. They include the AFL-CIO and member unions, especially the nurses union, the NAACP and La Raza, and the leading social service and social justice nonprofits.

In 2007 at the “Take Back America” conference, then Senator Obama delivered a ringing oration making “the minimum wage a living wage (tied) to the cost of living so we don’t have to wait another 10 years to see it rise.” Even Ontario, Canada’s minimum wage is $10.25 per hour.

So why aren’t all these supporters of the minimum wage inside and outside of Congress making something happen? Because they’re either out of gas and need to be replaced, or they are waiting on each other to make the first move.

The nonprofits and the labor unions are waiting on a signal from senior legislator, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic Caucus are also waiting for Miller, who has not introduced a bill increasing the minimum wage since Obama took office (the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007 was the last, with increases to $7.25 ending in July 2009). Of course, in turn, Obama is waiting on the Democratic leadership in Congress who, though firmly behind the increase, is waiting on Obama and, of course, Miller, who hails not from Dallas, Texas, but from the progressive San Francisco Bay area of California. Go figure.

So maybe this cycle of insensitive lethargy by the Democratic Party can be broken by the congressional stalwarts who have joined with Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. in supporting his proposal (H.R. 5901) for a modest increase in the minimum wage to help tens of millions of downtrodden workers catch up with 1968!

For more information on efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, see TimeForARaise.org.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.