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Opinion Why the minimum wage is the right fight for Democrats to take on

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In May 2007, President George W. Bush signed a law increasing the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25, phased in over the next two years. Every Democrat in the House voted for it, but so did 82 Republicans; in the Senate the vote was 94 to 3 in favor.

That was not a remarkable occurrence; what used to happen is that a few years after the prior increase, Democrats would start agitating for a raise for low-income workers, Republicans would resist for a while, then eventually they’d all agree.

But for the last decade, Republicans have been united and adamant: They will do everything in their power to make sure the minimum wage never goes up again. And in response, Democrats have repeatedly raised their own demands for how high the minimum wage should go.

Now with a Democratic president and Congress, they’ve reintroduced a proposal the House passed in 2019 to raise the minimum to $15 an hour, phased in over five years.

The fact that the Democrats reached a consensus around this number is a tribute to progressive activists, who started the “Fight for $15” campaign back in 2012 when that much seemed like an almost absurd demand. The next year, former president Barack Obama proposed raising the minimum to $9 an hour; a year after that he came out for a $10.10 wage, and by 2015 he and many other Democrats had embraced $12 an hour.

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That was the number Hillary Clinton settled on in her 2016 campaign, while Sen. Bernie Sanders was advocating for $15 an hour (Clinton did eventually express some qualified support for the $15 wage). And now the party has arrived at his position, as did Joe Biden, the moderate’s choice in the 2020 election.

That represents a little bit of inflation over time; the $9 Obama favored in 2013 is worth $10.18 today. But mostly it’s a genuine move to the left, as all that grassroots organizing and worsening economic inequality convinced Democrats that they had to do more for workers.

On the other side, Republicans are more implacably opposed to minimum wage increases than they ever have been. The arguments are familiar: It’ll cost jobs, it’ll cripple small business, it’ll deprive young people of the character-building effects of toiling for next to nothing. But what’s different is that almost no one in the Republican Party will sign on to a minimum wage increase.

And since in today’s GOP the most effective arguments are all about creating resentment toward Democrats, Republicans are finding ways to make this a red/blue issue. The conservative American Enterprise Institute tweeted that raising the minimum wage “erodes red states’ labor cost advantage in many job categories.”

To translate: In red states, people get paid lower wages, and it would affect them more if you changed that. Which is true. Why it’s almost as if Democrats want people to earn more no matter what state they live in!

In Massachusetts, for instance, the minimum wage is currently $13.50. Next year it rises to $14.25, and in 2023 it goes to $15. So a law raising the federal minimum to $15 by 2026 won’t change anything in Massachusetts. On the other hand, five states — Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee — have no minimum wage law of their own, while an additional 15 states have set theirs at the federal minimum. Almost all of those are run by Republicans, and if the minimum increases, wages there will indeed go up.

Which would make it harder for Republican-run states to say to prospective employers: “Move your business here, and you can pay your workers as little as possible.” They can, however, still use their union-busting and lax environmental laws to lure employers, so don’t feel too bad for them.

At the moment, the prospects for passing a minimum wage increase through the Senate don’t look great. The prevailing opinion has been that the rules prevent an increase from being included in the once-yearly reconciliation bill, which is supposed to deal only with budgetary matters and requires only a majority of votes to pass — though some Democrats have begun to argue that reconciliation could be used for a minimum wage increase after all. Unless the Senate parliamentarian sides with them, it would require ten Republicans defecting — which they won’t — to defeat the inevitable GOP filibuster of a minimum wage increase.

But it’s a fight Democrats should be eager to take on anyway. The first reason is that people need it. At an hourly rate of $7.25 you’re making less than $15,000 a year, which is almost impossible for one person to live on, let alone feed and house a family.

Second, minimum wage increases are incredibly popular. Polls regularly show them supported by clear majorities, and pretty much every time a state minimum wage increase is on the ballot, it passes easily. There have been 23 minimum wage ballot initiatives since 1998, and every one has succeeded. The latest was in Florida this past November, where Trump won but an initiative raising the minimum to $15 an hour passed by over 20 points.

It might even be the kind of fight that could convince the Democratic senators who retain their bizarre affection for the filibuster that the procedural roadblock ought to be reformed, even if they won’t agree to do away with it entirely. After all, if a Democratic majority can’t deliver better pay for struggling working people, what good is it?

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