The Politics of the Minimum Wage

Whatever led to the metastasis of corporate demons inside the brain of the Democratic Party over the last thirty years, it has paid off the business establishment. The cost of freezing the minimum wage has deprived millions of working Americans of trillions of dollars for their necessities of life.

A few Democrats, most prominently Senator Edward M. Kennedy, have championed keeping the minimum wage up with inflation for years. But the Republicans and the somnolent Democratic Party have combined to defeat Kennedy’s bills over and over again.

Last year the federal minimum wage at $5.15 per hour was $3.50 below in purchasing power of what it was in 1968. Today’s minimum wage has the lowest purchasing power since 1949 when economic productivity per worker was a fraction of what it is today, when the super-rich corporate bosses had not become hyper-rich averaging over $8000 an hour.

Add no health insurance for the working poor and there are added pressures on livelihoods for parents and children.

The last increase to $5.15 per hour was in 1997. Except for one year of restraint, members of Congress have zipped their annual pay grab through the House and Senate every year. Just the increases in that period amount to about three times the annual minimum wage income for millions of American laborers. No wonder poverty has been on the increase.

The abdication of the Congressional Democrats, even when they were the majority and Clinton was President, on the living wage matter has cost them as well. More than any other single issue, save possibly health insurance for all, their reluctance to boldly and visibly champion the living wage has cost them the Presidential and Congressional elections.

People want politicians to STAND FOR THE PEOPLE, not grovel beneath the corporations.

Mindful of the political appeal of the living wage issue in our country since the onset of the industrial age, I sent an open letter in May 2004 to the Democratic leadership-Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Senator Tom Daschle, urging them to pledge that members of their Party would resist all future raises for the lawmakers until the federal minimum wage was restored to its 1968 purchasing power. Hardly revolutionary.

But for Pelosi and Daschle and their leadership circle, that was too much alienation of the Wal-Marts, the McDonalds, other fast food and retail chains and their allies. They never responded to my letter and, along with John Kerry, plunged headlong to defeat in November. Meanwhile, though opposed by Governor Jeb Bush and the fast food chains with big television gadgets, a Florida referendum raising the minimum wage by a dollar won with a 72% majority in November.

Twenty-one states lately have raised their minimum wage above the federal minimum. None have reached the 1968 purchasing power level yet.
The Democrats finally sense the minimum wage issue to be a bright line position with the retrograde Republicans whose ideological heads are in the sands. But look how long the Democrats took to wake up their earlier political history.

At last, led by Senator Kennedy, they are attaching amendments to legislation and two weeks ago got 52 Senators to back raising the wage to $7.25 in three stages. At that level, minimum wage workers would earn an additional $4,370 a year to support their families.

However, the Republican filibuster opposition can only be overcome by getting 60 votes, so Kennedy has a ways to go. But the issue is getting hotter, though far from being visible to most Americans, including poor families.

The best thing going for the Democrats’ November prospects is bonehead John Boehner, Republican majority leader of the House who has dug in his heels. His spokesman, Kevin Madden, said Congressman Boehner “remains convinced that a minimum wage hike will destroy jobs.” Rep. Ray Lahood (R-IL) is trying to convince his leader, John Boehner, that raising the minimum wage “is a no-brainer. It’s just something that we should do.”

The loss of jobs argument is the Republican fig leaf hiding added bundles of campaign dollars that ooze intro the Party’s pores when the minimum wage remains frozen in time. As one wag put it, by that reasoning, the Republicans should push down the minimum wage to add more jobs.

Princeton economists blew that “job loss” claim out of the water after the 1997 increase. In the four years after the last minimum wage increase, 11 million new jobs were added including 600,000 restaurants jobs.

More to the point is the public philosophy that working full-time should provide enough income for your family’s necessities. There is also the matter of simple fairness. Wal-Mart’s CEO made $12,000 an hour, plus perks, in a recent year, while hundreds of thousands of his workers were making between $6 and $9 per hour, with very few if any benefits.

Rest assured, neither the Democratic nor the Republican leadership will stop their annual pay raise. The House already has passed their pay grab.

Shame is a rare commodity when it comes to the moral authority to govern.

Why do we let them get away with such Marie Antoinette values?



More articles by:

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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