JUST when you might have thought organized labor was about to beat a quiet retreat into oblivion in this age of 1980s affluence, union leaders and their political allies have suddenly taken the offensive on an old-fashioned theme: raising the US minimum wage. The folks in the union halls deserve a fair hearing. The last time Congress got around to boosting the minimum wage was back in 1977. Since that time, a lot of water has gone over the economic dams. Since 1981, when the legislation went into full effect, the wage has remained the same: $3.35 an hour. For those millions of Americans dependent on the wage for their primary salary, that's not enough - at $6,968 a year for a full-time worker - to keep a family of three off poverty rolls.
Exactly how many families are dependent on the wage for their well-being is unknown. As business officials correctly point out, a substantial number of the 6.7 million Americans earning the minimum wage (36 percent) are teenagers. But a majority, over 3 million of the total, are between the ages of 20 and 64. Many of these people are women holding part-time jobs. But many of this adult group also represent heads of households - perhaps one-fourth of all minimum wage workers. And a large number of these heads of households are single women with children.
The measure introduced this week by Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Augustus Hawkins, both Democrats, would increase the wage to $4.65 an hour over three years. Then, automatic wage hikes would be provided for so that the wage would equal one-half the average wage for nonsupervisory private workers in the United States. Such workers currently earn $8.88 an hour.
Groups who oppose an increase in the wage - including the Reagan administration - argue that a hike would work against low-income people by causing employers to either lay off workers to meet increased labor costs, or impose a ban on future hiring.
But that's the same argument that has been used against any increase in the wage since its passage back in 1938. It is true that labor costs will go up slightly. But such increases are relatively easily absorbed during a period of low inflation, as is now the case.
Henry Ford remains the model. By increasing minimum pay for his workers to the then-unheard-of pay of $5 a day back in the 1920s, he found that productivity went up, even as overall labor costs went down. And he sold more cars in the process.
Increasing the minimum wage to $4.65 an hour seems not unreasonable for a society as affluent as the United States.