NEW BRITAIN, Conn. - The governors of Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts joined President Obama at Central Connecticut State University here last Wednesday, Mar. 5 in a show of support for the president's call for a hike in the minimum wage as they move to raise the minimum wage in their own states.
The president received ovation after ovation as he called for raising the minimum wage, with the greatest cheers coming when he answered critics by describing the wage increase as "common sense" and when he called for pay equity for women. "When women succeed, America succeeds," Obama declared to sustained applause.
The majority of low-wage workers are women and youth. The National Women's Law Center calculated that women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and four in ten are women of color.
"At the end of the day, anyone working hard should not live in poverty," said Connecticut AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Treasurer Lori Pelletier who had a seat on the stage behind Obama as he addressed the packed gymnasium.
Obama spoke in Connecticut because this state may be the first to adopt the $10.10 minimum wage when the legislature acts next month. The state minimum wage increased to $8.70 this year, above the $7.25 federal minimum wage, and will go up to $9 in 2015. Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy proposes it continue going up to reach $10.10 in 2017.
A separate measure before the legislature seeks to include tipped workers, as do the bills before Congress that President Obama supports. Tipped workers were excluded from the Connecticut increase after the legislature ceded to the restaurant lobby last session.
Malloy made national news when he challenged Gov. Bobby Jindal's statement that the president's focus on the minimum wage was like "waving a white flag of surrender."
Malloy had reached out to the other New England governors present at the event Wednesday to take action as well, expecting that if this region raises the minimum wage to $10.10 it will give hope to other states and pressure Congress to raise the federal minimum wage.
In most Connecticut cities, however, an hourly wage of $23 is needed to afford a basic household budget.
"I wish Obama had taken it one step further," said Pelletier. "The 10.10 will get you out of poverty but you really need a union card to get into the middle class." She said the labor movement's support for the higher minimum wage, even though union members have already won higher wages, "lends credibility besides four governors and the president."
The Fair Minimum Wage Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, indexed to inflation. This would give a raise to 27.8 million workers. It would boost the economy and create about 85,000 new jobs.
The $10.10 amount represents a compromise in the Senate based on the projection that with the Earned Income Tax Credit minimum wage workers would be brought above the poverty line.
Grass roots pressure is also growing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, being spearheaded by fast food worker organizing around the country.
The minimum wage has already been raised above the federal level in 19 states, and in New Jersey voters approved a measure to amend their constitution to include the minimum wage increase indexed to inflation. More states including Illinois and Massachusetts will vote on ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage this year.
This campaign squarely addresses inequality and can have a big impact on the 2014 elections. With 72 percent support for raising the minimum wage, candidates for Congress who oppose the minimum wage increase and the women's economic agenda are being spotlighted by voters.
At a press conference announcing the legislation, Harkin said that in addition to raising the minimum wage, "the federal government should reallocate capital to build the infrastructure our children need for the future and create millions of jobs."
Reflecting a shift in the debate from austerity to poverty and worker's rights, Harkin called for an upgrade to the electric grid for the whole country, high speed rail, and upgrading the human infrastructure from Head Start to science and technology research.
The day before Obama arrived in Connecticut, the city of New London raised the minimum wage for municipal workers and contractors to $10.10 an hour.
Inspired by the president's State of the Union "call to action" the city council voted for the raise and Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio signed the ordinance into law.
"It's a good step for our city, and hopefully, other municipalities throughout Connecticut will follow suit, hopefully the state will follow suit and hopefully the nation as well," he said.
Photo: President Obama shakes hands before taking the stage to speak on the importance of raising the minimum wage on Mar. 5 in New Britain. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP