Labor and Allies, Surprised By Obama’s $9 Minimum Wage Proposal, Scramble to Coordinate

The president wants $9, Congressional Democrats want $10.10--but everyone’s optimistic.

Mike Elk

Sen. Tom Harkin (right) and Rep. George Miller have proposed raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, but the White House will not say whether the Obama administration supports the measure. (The White House/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

WASH­ING­TON, DC — When Pres­i­dent Oba­ma pro­posed rais­ing the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour in his State of the Union speech on Feb­ru­ary 12, the call came as a sur­prise to many wage-increase advocates.

“If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be worth approximately $10.56 per hour today… Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour will increase GDP by nearly $33 billion over the course of three years as workers spend their raises in their local businesses and communities.”

Jen Kern, the min­i­mum wage cam­paign coor­di­na­tor at the Nation­al Employ­ment Law Project, one of the largest advo­ca­cy groups on wage issues, says that her orga­ni­za­tion was con­sult­ed only two hours ahead” of the State of the Union speech.

We had been push­ing him on this for years, since he men­tioned it in his cam­paign in 2008, and nev­er real­ly heard any­thing from him,” says Kern. So, yeah, we were surprised.”

We were giv­en lit­tle advance notice,” says Bill Samuel, gov­ern­ment affairs direc­tor for the AFL-CIO, labor’s main coali­tion. I think this is a strat­e­gy that the White House has often employed before a State of the Union. I believe that was inten­tion­al. It wasn’t a bad motive. I think they decid­ed this should be good news.”

In anoth­er indi­ca­tion that the pres­i­dent didn’t con­sult with allies before select­ing the $9‑an-hour fig­ure, Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.), who pro­posed an increase to $9.80-an-hour in last year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion, were already at work on a new bill to raise the min­i­mum to $10.10. They issued a joint response to the State of the Union applaud­ing the president’s move but ques­tion­ing the $9‑an-hour fig­ure, say­ing: While we believe the president’s pro­pos­al is low­er than what is need­ed, there is no ques­tion that last night he threw the doors open for a robust dis­cus­sion on the impor­tance of rais­ing the min­i­mum wage.”

Harkin and Miller, who serve as the rank­ing Democ­rats on the Sen­ate and House com­mit­tees with juris­dic­tion over wage increas­es, offi­cial­ly intro­duced their $10.10 pro­pos­al on March 5. Accord­ing to a press release issued by Harkin’s office, If the min­i­mum wage had kept up with infla­tion since 1968, it would be worth approx­i­mate­ly $10.56 per hour today… Increas­ing the min­i­mum wage to $10.10 per hour will increase GDP by near­ly $33 bil­lion over the course of three years as work­ers spend their rais­es in their local busi­ness­es and communities.”

The $1.10-an-hour dif­fer­ence between the president’s pro­pos­al and Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats’ plan would have a cumu­la­tive effect. Under both plans, once the min­i­mum wage rate is set, it will there­after be adjust­ed as a per­cent­age of infla­tion, and is unlike­ly to make a jump as big as $1.10 an hour in one year.

The lack of coor­di­na­tion between labor, the White House and Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats appears to con­tin­ue in the wake of the Miller-Harkin bill. The AFL-CIO isn’t sure whether the White House sup­ports the increase to $10.10 an hour. I have not heard any­thing pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. It’s my assump­tion they are fine with a high­er num­ber if it’s pos­si­ble in the House or Sen­ate,” says the AFL-CIO’s Bill Samuel.

The White House would not respond to inquiries about whether it sup­ports the Miller-Harkin pro­pos­al. How­ev­er, in a blog post for The Huff­in­g­ton Post on Thurs­day, Act­ing Sec­re­tary of Labor Seth D. Har­ris reit­er­at­ed the president’s call to raise the min­i­mum wage to $9 an hour. White House spokesper­son Matthew Lehrich told In These Times by email, The Pres­i­dent applauds Sen­a­tor Harkin, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Miller for get­ting this debate start­ed in Con­gress. He stands ready to work with Con­gress to pass leg­is­la­tion to increase the min­i­mum wage as soon as pos­si­ble — both par­ties should agree that hard-work­ing fam­i­lies should not be liv­ing below the pover­ty line.”

Mean­while, four weeks after the State of the Union, the President’s grass­roots polit­i­cal advo­ca­cy arm, Orga­niz­ing for Amer­i­ca, has yet to meet with the AFL-CIO to dis­cuss how to coor­di­nate mobi­liza­tions on the state lev­el to win the min­i­mum wage fight.

We haven’t talked specif­i­cal­ly about their strat­e­gy, but we will soon,” says Samuel. We have a meet­ing com­ing up with OFA where I am sure this will be dis­cussed, but we have not had any for­mal meet­ings. There has been some talk about using their grass­roots struc­ture of OFA and we are cer­tain­ly prepar­ing to use our grass­roots structure.”

Orga­niz­ing for Amer­i­ca did not respond to request for comment.

Despite the appar­ent lack of coor­di­na­tion so far, labor is opti­mistic that the pres­i­dent will gen­uine­ly push for a min­i­mum wage increase.

The pres­i­dent is tak­ing on the con­ser­v­a­tives and most of the Repub­li­can Par­ty to do this,” says Samuel. It’s always excit­ing to be in a fight that cer­tain­ly if we win can help so many peo­ple. I think they are seri­ous about it.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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