The U.S. reached a milestone last week – and it isn’t a good one.
It’s been five years since the federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25 an hour, and it has not aged well. Congress has been bogged down in efforts to try and raise it to $10.10 an hour as proposed by President Obama, but it seems unlikely that anything will happen in the near term. Meanwhile, about 1.5 million Americans are forced to try and subsist on a criminally low salary.
Part of the problem is that while the U.S. minimum wage has remained flat, the cost of living has not. In fact, the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index has gone up nearly 9 percent since July 2009, while the cost of beef and gasoline have risen 40 and 45 percent, respectively. It’s no wonder why low-wage earners are falling behind even while they go to work each day.
Luckily, not all elected officials are happy with the status quo. In fact, many states and localities are not waiting around for Capitol Hill to take action. They decided that workers in their jurisdictions deserve the respect that a higher wage brings. From Massachusetts to Seattle, lawmakers have increased the minimum wage substantially, to as high as $15 an hour in some places.
The idea of a higher minimum wage, especially one in the double-digits, is an anathema to many in the corporate world. But it shouldn’t be. In fact, the statistics show that business is booming in states that have raised the floor on low wages this year. But it seems not enough members of Congress are interested in those facts.
So workers should take notice and do something about it. First, they need to vote in November to elect lawmakers that value workers above billionaire businessmen like the Koch brothers. Second, they can come together and fight for better salaries and working conditions by joining a union.
Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., knows that organizing has become a bigger challenge in recent years due to the big business interests. Speaking at during a panel at the Netroots Nation conference in Detroit this month, he said, “We have to get leverage on those companies we work for that traditionally has been supplied by unions,” adding, “We are in a movement moment and face an incredible opportunity.”
The lawmaker is trying to make good on that by introducing a bill on Wednesday that would make union organizing a civil right. He noted that polls have shown most Americans want to join a union, but that worries about their job security causes many to back down. “We are going to do something about that,” he said.
Legislative efforts to fix the problem are good. But as the federal fight for a higher minimum wage shows, they are not always successful. That’s why voters need to take matters in their own hands by changing the playing field by supporting pro-worker candidates and remaining active in the process. Because no one can take the people’s voice away.