Momentum builds for minimum-wage hike

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If all references to economic justice were removed, the Christian and Jewish scriptures would be shredded, says the Rev. Paul Sherry. And to him, a minimum-wage boost is a matter of economic justice.

Mr. Sherry is "campaign coordinator" for Let Justice Roll, an alliance of some 80 organizations, most of them religious, but including the AFL-CIO, the national federation of labor unions. The group is behind hundreds of rallies, workshops, religious services, and prayer breakfasts across the nation this month to build support for raising the minimum wage at both the state and federal levels.

His group takes its name from words of the prophet Amos (5:24), "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream." The group includes conservative, liberal, and centrist religious groups, Sherry says. They all tend to emphasize moral and religious arguments in the campaign.

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But the broadly based effort to get Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour and unchanged since 1997 despite inflation, are also centered on secular views.

"A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it," Sherry says.

Today, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year at a minimum-wage job provides an annual income of $10,712, which is about $6,000 below the official poverty level for a family of three.

Sherry's "nonpartisan" group wants voters in six states to approve measures to raise the minimum to as much as $6.85 an hour, with inflation protection.

By the end of 2006, 23 states plus the District of Columbia will have minimum wages that exceed the federal level. If voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio support wage initiatives on their ballots, then for the first time a majority of states will require higher hourly pay than the federal minimum wage.

Many Democratic candidates running in November's national election promise that a minimum-wage hike will top their legislative agenda should they win control of one or both houses of Congress.

Congress returns for a postelection "lame duck" session Nov. 14. That's when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts will try to attach an amendment to an appropriations bill or other legislation that would hike the federal minimum wage to $7.25 over two years, a spokeswoman promises. Senator Kennedy has made such amendments to bills many times in recent years – without success.

His losing streak may continue. After the election, the Republican congressional leadership will be freer to ignore the popularity among voters of a boost in the minimum wage, says Ross Eisenbrey, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a liberal, secular Washington think tank that has long advocated a minimum-wage hike. "They can do what they think is economically right."

Also, the leadership can please business conservatives. "Their political clout is disproportionate," says Jared Bernstein, another EPI economist.

The current political situation is intriguing. The Republican leadership in the Senate has said that any bill to raise the minimum wage would require a 60-vote majority in order to pass and avoid a filibuster. Senator Kennedy's bill could get a simple majority, that is, at least 51 votes, his spokeswoman says. But "Bush would never sign it."

Earlier this month, however, a Treasury official indicated that the Bush administration would support a minimum-wage hike if such a bill included tax or regulatory relief for small businesses. That way, the wage measure would not "impinge on the ability" of these firms to hire workers.

Even should Democrats win control of Congress, a simple minimum-wage hike might face the prospect of an insurmountable presidential veto.

Meanwhile, the campaign for a hike continues. Last week, Mr. Bernstein's think tank released a statement signed by 650 economists, including several Nobel Prize winners, holding that a phased-in boost to $7.25 an hour "falls well within the range of options where the benefits to the labor market, workers, and the overall economy would be positive." It would "improve the lives of low-income workers and their families, without the adverse effects that critics have claimed."

Sherry calls a hike in the minimum wage the nation's "most viable" tool for addressing poverty in the nation.

And a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a liberal New York think tank, finds that states with minimum wages above the federal level have had faster small-business and retail job growth.

When business faces a higher minimum wage it uses labor more efficiently, worker morale improves, labor turnover falls, recruitment costs drop, and productivity increases, says James Parrott, an economist and an author of the FPI study. "The net result could be beneficial to business," he says.

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