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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Why Democrats Are Suddenly Talking About Minimum Wage

We’re hearing a lot these days about raising the minimum wage.

President Obama talked about it in his State of the Union address last month. Voters in SeaTac, Washington, which surrounds the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, approved a $15-an-hour base wage last fall. And there’s a push now to adopt the same in Seattle. Even in Idaho, there’s a minimum wage campaign afoot.

It turns out this is no accident — it’s part of a national effort to put the issue before politicians and voters. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Austin Jenkins of Northwest News Network reports on the national effort to put the issue before politicians and voters.




Yeah, and there's of course a similar debate going on in this country right now about income inequality and a new report out this week about what exactly would happen if the minimum wage went up. The report came from the Congressional Budget Office, and it says hiking the wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour would lift about 900,000 people out of poverty, but could also cause about half a million jobs to go away.

Now we're going to wait and see what happens to the debate over raising the wage at the federal level, but it is worth noting that states and cities across the U.S. are not waiting on this issue, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Voters in SeaTac, Washington, approved a $15 dollar an hour base wage last fall. There is a push now to adopt the same in Seattle, and in Idaho there's a campaign afoot.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Austin Jenkins reports from Olympia, Washington.

AUSTIN JENKINS: It's been more than two years since the Occupy Wall Street movement grabbed headlines. In Washington state, protestors set up camp near the state capitol in Olympia and disrupted the legislature chanting...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) We are the 99 percent.

JENKINS: For a couple of months, the occupiers were part of the scene here. Then riot-gear-clad Washington state troopers swept into their tent city and sent them packing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You are directed to remove tents, shelters, structures.

JENKINS: The occupiers mostly went quietly into that morning. But they had left their imprint. In Olympia, and across the nation, 99 percent was now shorthand for income inequality.

But David Rolf, an international vice president with the Service Employees International Union, says there was something missing.

DAVID ROLF: Occupy didn't have a long-term theory of how to make change, and it didn't have very crisp demands.

JENKINS: Rolf says that started to change about a year after the occupiers were chased out. In November of 2012, his union, SEIU, was involved in organizing a fast food workers strike in New York. Their demand: a $15 per hour wage. In May of 2013, SEIU helped organize a similar action in Seattle.

The ABC affiliate in Seattle showed the boisterous walkout.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Walk out, walk out, walk out.

JENKINS: Fast food workers would again walk out, nationally, in August of 2013. SEIU's Rolf makes the case these strikes were the catalyst for the current push for higher minimum wages.

ROLF: The momentum is clearly towards a broad movement in this country to address income inequality, and a low-hanging piece of fruit in that struggle is the demand to increase wages.

JENKINS: Suddenly, 2014 seems like the year of the minimum wage, from President Obama in his State of the Union...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ...a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour because if you...

JENKINS: Washington Governor Jay Inslee in his State of the State.

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE: That's why I'm calling today for a statewide increase in the minimum wage.

JENKINS: This year minimum wage measures have been introduced or are in play in some 30 state capitols across the nation. That's according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Leslie McCall is an expert on income inequality at Northwestern University. She's not surprised the left has seized upon the minimum wage.

LESLIE MCCALL: You know, it's a long-standing policy that we actually have in place already.

JENKINS: And it polls well. McCall says, historically, the minimum wage becomes an issue during economic recoveries when not everyone is bouncing back.

MCCALL: To me it seems quite consistent with the past, not something that's sort of drummed up but that is a genuine reflection of frustrations and frustrated expectations about economic growth.

JENKINS: There's another professor who views this minimum wage movement very differently. Matt Manweller teaches political science and economics at Central Washington University. He's also a Republican state lawmaker.

MATT MANWELLER: It's in no way a coincidence that President Barack Obama makes minimum wage an issue, then Governor Inslee makes it an issue, and then Mayor Ed Murray makes it an issue.

JENKINS: Murray is the newly elected mayor of Seattle. Manweller believes this is all part of a coordinated campaign. Personally, he opposes raising the minimum wage. But he views the issue as more populist than liberal.

MANWELLER: If the economy rebounds then I think it will take the wind out of the sails. If it continues to stagnate, then populist messages will continue to resonate.

JENKINS: And SEIU is there to make sure they do. Washington state Representative Jessyn Farrell recalls a conversation she had last fall with an SEIU lobbyist.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE JESSYN FARRELL: We were just kind of off to the side but saying this was a really exciting vote.

JENKINS: She's talking about the vote in the city of SeaTac, Washington, that raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour for hospitality and transportation workers.

FARRELL: This was so exciting that, you know, the momentum around this campaign of fast food workers has caught on fire. You know, should we consider doing this?

JENKINS: Doing this meant introduce a bill in the legislature to raise the state minimum wage, already the highest in the nation. The answer was yes.

FARRELL: We are here to introduce House Bill 2623, which would raise the statewide minimum wage, and I'd like...

JENKINS: Last month Farrell announced a proposal to boost Washington's base wage to $12 an hour by 2017. But Farrell's measure appears to have already stalled. It turns out some of her fellow Democrats are wary. Still SEIU and other advocates for low-wage workers say the minimum wage issue isn't going away. There's already talk of bypassing the Washington legislature with a direct initiative to the voters. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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