Pennsylvanians press for minimum wage increase

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The signs filling the Capitol Rotunda here told the story: “We Want Fair Wages,” “Help the Working Poor,” and “Vote Now!” For the third time in seven months a broad coalition of labor, community and religious groups brought hundreds of workers, unemployed and their supporters to the state capital to bring their message to state legislators. Workers in steel, health care, education, hotel and restaurant and other industries joined community activists from across the state.

Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George opened the noon rally, saying, “This is not a labor rally; this is a people’s rally!” He was followed at the podium by an array of speakers, including many state legislators, demanding that the Keystone state increase its minimum wage from the current $5.15 to $7.15 by January 1, 2007.

The state’s minimum wage has not been raised since 1997. According to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, inflation has reduced its value to $4 in 1997 terms, a cut of over 20 per cent.

Minimum wage legislation has been bottled up in committee by the Republican Senate leadership for several years, but pressure to bring it out for a vote has intensified recently, especially since legislators voted themselves a hefty pay increase last summer. Voter outrage was so intense that legislators were forced to rescind the pay raise, but many are still smarting from the experience.

The rally here capped a week of activity across the state aimed at forcing passage of legislation sponsored by state Sen. Tina Tartaglione and state Rep. Mark Cohen, both Philadelphia Democrats. Both bills have long lists of co-sponsors.

On Jan. 19, simultaneous rallies in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Erie heard low-wage workers and Gov. Ed Rendell call for passage of the legislation via a statewide audio feed on loudspeakers.

The coalition was spurred to action by concern that the Senate Republican leadership, feeling the heat, plans to hustle out a bill calling for a nominal increase in an attempt to undercut support for the $7.15 figure.

As ACORN member Traci Green of Philadelphia told the rally, “If you don’t fix this issue now, with inflation going up, there’s going to be a lot more poverty in our community. A lot of people will be desperate for food and housing.”

Speakers noted that most of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states have already raised their minimum wage, putting the lie to the argument that employers will simply move across the border to avoid paying the increase.