Some 70 percent of the public supports raising the minimum wage. This is an issue that resonates across political, ethnic, religious and cultural lines. It exposes the vast disparities in wealth and the gross inequalities imposed by our corporate oligarchy. The political elite during this election year, which needs to toss a few scraps to the voting public, might be pressured to respond. The two leading Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, say they support the minimum wage (although only Romney has called for indexing the minimum wage). Barack Obama promised during his 2008 election campaign to press to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, a promise that, like many others, he has ignored. But the ground is fertile.
“The 24-hour encampments, largely on public property, broke through,” Ralph Nader told me when we spoke of the Occupy movement a few days ago. “These encampments jolted the consciousness of the nation. But people began asking after a number of weeks what’s next. Once the movement lost the encampments, it did not have a second-strike readiness, which should be the raising of the minimum wage to $10 an hour.”
The federal minimum wage of $7.25, adjusted for inflation, is $2.75 lower than it was in 1968 when worker productivity was about half of what it is today. There has been a steady decline in real wages for low-income workers. Meanwhile, corporations such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, whose workforce earns the minimum wage or slightly above it, have enjoyed massive profits. Executive salaries, along with prices, have soared even as worker salaries have stagnated or declined. But the call to raise the minimum wage is not only a matter of economic justice. The infusion of tens of billions of dollars into the hands of the working class would increase tax revenue, open up new jobs and lift consumer spending.
There are numerous groups, including the AFL-CIO, whose leaders dutifully pay lip service to raising the minimum wage but have refused to mobilize to fight for it. Rank-and-file workers, once they had a place and a movement willing to agitate on their behalf, would shame union bosses into joining them. There are 535 congressional offices scattered throughout the country. These congressional offices, Nader suggests, could provide the focal point for sustained local protests.
“You could get leading think tanks, like the Economic Policy Institute, the AFL-CIO, member unions, especially unions like the California Nurses Association, which has been very aggressive on this, and a bevy of academics such as Dean Baker and professor Robert Pollin, along with groups such as the NAACP and La Raza, to back this,” Nader said. “There is potential for huge synergy. But it needs the jolt that can only come from the Occupy movement.
“The Occupy movement arose by embracing a rejectionist attitude toward politics, but in the end that is lethal,” Nader said. “It is a form of ideological immolation. If they won’t turn on politics, politics will continue to turn on them. Politics means the power of government—local, state and national—and the ability of corporations to control departments and agencies and turn government against its own people. Not engaging in politics might have been a good preliminary tactic to gain credibility so they could avoid being tagged with some ‘-ism’ or some party, but it has worn out its purpose. The movement needs to become a champion for millions of low-income workers. This does not mean the Occupy movement should support a political party. It means it should go after both parties. It is only by going after the two main political parties that raising the minimum wage will get through Congress.”
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