$5.15 an hour wont cut it: Campaigns to raise the minimum wage sweep the country

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Because Congress has refused to raise the $5.15 an hour minimum wage since 1997, coalitions of labor, religious and community groups are organizing voters to do so, one state at a time. So far 21 states and Washington, D.C., have done so. Similar campaigns are under way in another dozen states.

On June 5 several busloads of low-wage and unemployed workers organized by the Philadelphia Unemployment Project joined hundreds of other Pennsylvanians at the State Capitol in Harrisburg to demand an increase in the state minimum from $5.15 to $7.15 an hour. Organizers say raising the minimum to $7.15 would increase the income of some 427,000 Pennsylvanians by $4,000 a year.

Although on April 5 the state House of Representatives passed an increase to $6.15 in July 2006 and $7.15 in July 2007, Senate Majority Leader David J. “Chip” Brightbill (R-Lebanon) has prevented a similar bill from coming to the Senate floor.

Brandy Russell, an organizer for the Raise the Minimum Wage Coalition, said the bill would likely pass the Senate if it were put to a vote. “I’ve been counting heads and we have a substantial majority of the Senate supporting the $7.15 an hour minimum wage,” he said.

At the June 5 rally, chants included “$7.15 and nothing in between” and “Raise the minimum wage now!”

State Senators Stewart Greenleaf (R-Willow Grove), Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) and Tina Tartaglione (D-Philadelphia) promised to do everything in their power to press the Republican leadership to let the Senate vote.

Linda Williams, a low-wage supermarket worker from Allegheny County, emphasized that even $7.15 an hour is not a living wage and told how working families are suffering.

State AFL-CIO President Bill George warned the lawmakers, “If you don’t increase the minimum wage, you won’t get any votes from AFL-CIO members in November.” George said studies show that, contrary to claims by those who oppose an increase, not one job has been lost due to raising the minimum wage, nor has small business growth decreased.

“Raising the minimum wage is a moral issue and the clergy should be in the forefront of this campaign,” said the Rev. Randy Barge of Philadelphia’s Calvin Presbyterian Church, who chaired the rally.

On June 1 Louisiana became the most recent state to raise its minimum wage, boosting it from $5.15 to $6.15. State Sen. Charles Jones (D-Monroe) tried unsuccessfully to raise it to $7. “I know hospital workers who are so poor that if they get sick they can’t afford to lie in the bed they made this morning because they have no health care,” Jones said.

On April 10 Arkansas hiked its minimum to $6.25. Florida, Michigan and Maine have also recently increased their minimum wages.

In Ohio the Coalition for a Fair Minimum Wage is collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.85 with yearly increases for inflation. (See related story, page 4.)

In California the Assembly and Senate have both passed measures to raise the minimum wage from $6.75 to $7.75 by July 2008 and index it to inflation, potentially benefiting over 1.4 million workers. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports the increase but opposes indexing. Meanwhile, signatures have been submitted for a ballot measure to set the minimum at $8.75 by January 2009 and index it to inflation.

Raising the minimum wage for all workers will be a key issue to get voters to the polls in November, says the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, a coalition of 60 faith-based and community organizations. “It would take $9 in 2006 to buy what the minimum wage bought in 1968,” said Holly Sklar and the Rev. Dr. Paul Sherry in their report for the coalition. “A just minimum wage is good for workers, business and our future.”