Legislative Republicans rip off Dickens with their minimum wage vote.
This is compassion?
Senator Judy Robson
The six Republican members of the Legislature's administrative rules committee were in a bind last Thursday afternoon. They had to figure out a way to stop the minimum wage from going up while making it look like “compassionate conservatism.”
They had just finished a public hearing at which 35 people testified or registered in support of increasing the minimum wage and only two people, state Senator Tom Reynolds and his staff member, registered against.
The two-step wage increase had the support of Republican allies such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the Grocers Association, the Restaurant Association, the Merchant Federation, and the National Federation of Independent Business.
In a compromise reached with representatives from labor and other organizations, the business interests on the governor's Minimum Wage Advisory Council supported increasing the minimum wage to $5.70 this October and $6.50 in October 2005.
But Republican legislators have opposed the modest minimum wage increase at every pass, beginning with the vote by the advisory council. Every member of the council voted in favor of the wage increase except the two Republican legislators, Reynolds and Assembly Rep. Stephen Nass.
Then the Republican members of the Senate Labor Committee, chaired by Reynolds, objected to the wage increases. That vote prompted the proposal to go to the Joint Committee for Administrative Rules, on which I serve.
Last Thursday afternoon, the six Republican members of the rules committee, including Reynolds and Nass, who was sitting on the committee that day as a substitute, were caucusing furiously to figure out how to block the wage increase without appearing cold-hearted. (Because having six members of the committee in a room would constitute a quorum in violation of the open meetings law, they rotated so that only four committee members were in the room at a time.)
When the Republicans emerged, Rep. Glenn Grothman explained how compassionate conservatism drove them to shoot down the wage hike: They did not want the most vulnerable workers, the workers with the least seniority, to lose their jobs over an increase in the minimum wage.
Never mind that there is no credible evidence that a minimum wage increase leads to job losses. Grothman & Company shooed away the facts like houseflies. Here are some of the facts:
* The minimum wage has not increased since 1997. Inflation has brought the real value of the minimum wage down to 1995 levels.
* If the 1970 minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, it would now be $8.46 an hour.
* If the minimum wage had kept pace with CEO salary increases in the 1990s, it would be $15.76 per hour.
* Higher wages result in less employee turnover, lower costs for recruitment and training, and stronger local economies because low-wage workers spend nearly all of their income locally.
Increasing the wage to $6.50 would not even pull a worker above the poverty line. In Rock County, which I represent, a mother and father with a preschooler and a school-age child would each have to earn $10 per hour just to pay for their housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and other basic needs without public or private assistance.
Raising the minimum wage would help an estimated 200,000 Wisconsin citizens who hold jobs at or slightly above the minimum wage. Contrary to popular belief, minimum wage earners are not primarily high school students. Of the 200,000, nearly 80 percent are older than 18. Half are 25 or older. One-third are heads of households, and 65 percent are women.
These are the people who make other people rich. They toil in large hotel and restaurant chains. They clean the rooms after we vacation in Wisconsin Dells. They are the personal care workers who care for our frail elderly. They are the child care workers who care for our children so we can go out and earn a living wage.
Low-wage workers spend nearly their entire income locally on food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. They do not take their money to Mackinac Island. They do not go on Chicago shopping trips. They work hard, try to pay their bills, and hope for better pay or a better job some day.
None of the pleas for compassion by Democratic members of the committee melted the hearts of the Republican members. Like a page out of Dickens, wherein the comfortable turn their backs on the cold and hungry, Republicans blocked the wage increase on a party-line vote of 6-4.
Democrats running for the state Legislature can point to this travesty as emblematic of Republican values. It is okay to help out the rich by repealing the estate tax, but it is not okay to help out the poor by increasing the minimum wage. It is okay for big corporations to outsource jobs to India and China, but Wisconsin workers must struggle to subsist on poverty-level wages.
The Republicans should be ashamed of what they did. The voters should be astonished.
(Editors' note: FightingBob.com has invited Rep. Glenn Grothman to write on the same topic.)
October 3, 2004
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Judy Robson lives in Beloit and represents most of Rock County and the northwest portion of Walworth County in the Wisconsin Senate's 15th district.