Democratic activists and union leaders have run into an unexpected obstacle in their fight to double the minimum wage for about 2,000 workers in Montgomery County--Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who has sponsored national wage-hike legislation in Congress.
With a hearing on Montgomery's "living wage" bill scheduled for Thursday, Wynn has marshaled arguments against it similar to those used against him four years ago. Then Wynn said his bill would help workers, but now he worries about how the county bill might hurt businesses.
The four-term incumbent, who represents most of Prince George's County and a portion of Montgomery County, has said that the county bill might make it too costly for businesses to hire workers. And he is "frankly horrified," he has said, that it could cause employers to shy away from joining long-awaited redevelopment efforts in downtown Silver Spring.
"All the restaurants you go to in Silver Spring have come down to my office and pleaded with me not to raise the minimum wage," Wynn told voters at a town meeting in Colesville. "I am not hostile to the notion of a living wage, but I will say this: An entry-level wage should be one that will be attractive to an employer, so he will hire more people who have marginal skills."
In contrast, when he introduced a minimum wage bill in 1995, Wynn referred favorably to President Clinton's statement that "the greatest incentive to work in America is the ability to earn a livable wage." At that time, he quoted a seamstress who, when told a higher minimum wage might prompt her employer to cut back on jobs, said that she preferred to "take my chances with a job. I want a better wage."
In an interview this week, Wynn said that he supported a federal minimum wage increase--and will again--because it applies to every state, and employers could not escape its provisions simply by moving. "Because it has a national impact," Wynn said, "an employer can't say, 'I'll leave and go to Virginia.' "
But an employer could do that with a bill that applied only to Montgomery County, he said.
Wynn does not have any direct role in the county deliberations, but his status as a regional Democratic leader could influence the debate.
The Montgomery County bill would require companies with five or more employees that do $50,000 or more in county business to pay a $9-an-hour minimum wage if they provide health benefits, or $10.44 an hour if they do not. Companies that receive economic development grants or tax credits of more than $100,000 also would fall under the bill.
Wynn said that he prefers Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's proposal this week to create a county earned income tax credit as a broader, fairer way to assist about 12,000 workers who earn less than $17,000 a year to support a family of four.
Union leaders and Democratic bill sponsors, who have pushed hard for the minimum wage increase and expect a similar bill to be introduced in Prince George's County, said they were surprised by Wynn's position, given his strong support for labor initiatives in the past.
"It's a puzzle to me," said Montgomery County Council member Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large), who sponsored the bill with Philip Andrews (D-Rockville). Both council members noted that they have already addressed one of Wynn's concerns by exempting redevelopment districts in Silver Spring and Wheaton from its provisions.
Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, attributed Wynn's concerns to "a lack of understanding." Saying a split with him would be "politically disastrous," he added, "I can't conceive of Congressman Wynn and the labor community being at odds on this issue."
Williams said the growing fight "can be chalked up to the well-funded opposition of the business community. . . . [They] know how serious we are about this issue of a living wage, and they're prepared to make Montgomery County a battleground." Williams acknowledged that organizers failed to consult with Wynn beforehand, adding, "We'll remedy that."
Bethesda-based Democratic pollster Keith Haller said Wynn's stand "takes courage" and added that Democratic leaders are having to take heat about a bill that would have "a minuscule impact for a minuscule audience."
CAPTION: Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) says he supports a federal minimum wage increase, but not one for Montgomery County alone.