Advocates for workers have declared today “Minimum Wage Day,” as the 10th day of the 10th month calls attention to the demand for an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from the current $7.25.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi marked the day by calling on Congress to drop its campaigning and come back to Washington to vote on a minimum wage increase, as well as an authorization for combat operations against the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
“The American people deserve an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected,” Pelosi said Friday during a press call. “So urgent is this that I think we should come back [to Washington] before the elections.”
That is unlikely to happen, given that the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress have actually gone out of their way to block consideration of a minimum wage increase. But in this case there is a difference between a demand being unrealistic and being unreasonable.
There is real urgency to the need for low-income workers to see an increase in their wages. The federal wage has not increased since 2009, when the latest in a series of increases that started in 2007 took effect. Since then, to quote a group of former lawmakers who wrote a joint op-ed in USA Today, “Groceries cost 20% more, a gallon of gas costs 25%more, and average tuition at a community college increased 44%. But the minimum wage remains at $7.25. If it had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be almost $10.70 today.”
Who were these lawmakers, by the way? Four Republican former members of Congress: Jack Quinn, Mike Castle, Steve LaTourette and Connie Morella. But these Republicans aren’t cut from the conservative extremist cloth that has now blinded their party’s leadership. They get, as do most of the American public, that you don’t grow an economy by holding down wages, by keeping people who are the backbone of our economy in a state of chronic subsistence and struggle.
Yet on the same day that many Democrats and moderate Republicans are calling on lawmakers to act on increasing the minimum wage comes news that one of the heroes of the tea-party Republicanism, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, sees no problem in holding workers down to $7.25 an hour.
According to The Huffington Post, 100 of the state’s workers filed a complaint with the state Department of Workforce Development last month saying that the wages they received in their jobs – at or just above the federal $7.25 minimum – are in violation of the state’s living wage law, which requires wages “be adequate to permit any employee to maintain herself or himself in minimum comfort, decency, physical and moral well-being.”
The state’s response? “The Department has determined that there is no reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to the complainants are not a living wage.”
No reason to believe, they say, despite the experience of 700,000 workers who, according to a report done in conjunction with the Economic Policy Institute, earn “poverty wages” in Wisconsin. A “poverty wage” in Wisconsin is $11.36 an hour, according to the report – the point below which a full-time worker cannot keep a family of four above the poverty line. The median age of a worker working poverty wages is 30, and 60 percent of the people in this group are women.
Walker and the federal lawmakers who hew to his right-wing ideology are willing to go all out to protect the profit margins of big corporations and the über-wealthy, but feel no urgency to address the wage stagnation and real suffering of working people.
But for millions of us next month’s rent will come due in about three weeks, and the utility bills and perhaps a car payment, student loan bill or a health insurance premium on top of that. Those bills won’t wait. Neither will election day, when members of Congress should be held to account for not acting with urgency toward – and in fact getting in the way of – an increase in the minimum wage.