DEMOCRATS ATTEMPT TO RAISE MINIMUM WAGE OVER 3 YEARS
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — House and Senate Democrats renewed their bid to increase the federal minimum wage on Wednesday, this time proposing a $1.50 hike over three years.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) and Rep. David Bonior (D., Mich.) are again leading the charge and will face opposition from business, including retailers and the White House.
Last year, a $1 increase cleared the House on a bipartisan vote after Republicans relented to a hike in exchange for a package of business tax breaks to offset the cost of raising wages. However, that minimum wage proposal was blocked by Republican leadership from being taken up in the Senate.
But given the new 50-50 split in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans, Kennedy said chances of scoring a minimum wage victory this year are good.
“Things have changed in the U.S. Senate,” Kennedy told reporters at a news conference, a reference to Senate Democrats’ new ability to force bills to a vote. Kennedy said he also expects moderate Republicans to support his efforts, ensuring passage.
The proposed hike in the $5.15 minimum wage would be the third increase since 1996. The increase would directly affect about 11 million workers who are paid the minimum hourly salary.
Evy Dubrow, special assistant to the president of the apparel union UNITE, who attended the news conference, said a minimum wage increase would also improve wages for unionized domestic garment workers who are paid above the minimum.
“Where we have contracts, the increase makes it clear we can ask for more,” said Dubrow, a longtime Capitol Hill lobbyist for the union who has retired but continues to work part-time on certain issues.
Another key aspect of the legislation would benefit garment workers in the Northern Mariana Islands — a thriving offshore apparel-producing center in the Pacific Ocean and target of sweatshop allegations and lawsuits. The Kennedy-Bonior minimum wage bill would require the U.S. commonwealth to abide by federal minimum wage laws, from which it is now exempt.
Kennedy and Bonior labeled their increase proposal as modest, arguing that those who make the minimum now are living below the poverty line and haven’t benefited from the eight-year economic expansion. They also criticized members of Congress for increasing their salaries by $3,800 last year, while not enacting minimum wage legislation.
This year, the sponsors want to avoid linking an increase to the march on Capitol Hill to cut taxes. They also called on President Bush to support minimum wage legislation as part of his call for compassion in government. Bush has said he supports a minimum wage increase if states are given the option of employing a hike.
Bonior didn’t underestimate the struggle on minimum wage. “There is going to be one hell of a fight on this, believe me,” he said.
Steve Pfister, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, said while retailers oppose an increase in the wage floor “we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact there’s a good change minimum wage will move this year.”
While many retailers already pay above the minimum, an increase would have a ripple effect in their wage rates, Pfister said.
“We continue to maintain the minimum wage is dictated by the market and it’s an antiquated system,” he said.