How long will Republicans resist an increase in the federal minimum wage?

The pressure for a federal increase will eventually become so great that Republicans can no longer ignore it

Holding off, for now.
(Image credit: Alamy)

Last week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich — remember him, the supposedly moderate one? — signed a law forbidding municipalities in the state from raising their own minimum wages, in a tribute to the working-class voters who helped deliver the state and the election to Donald Trump. He was following in the footsteps of his colleague Mike Pence, who, as governor of Indiana, signed a similar preemption law keeping wages down in the state. And with Republicans in complete control of the federal government, it's going to be many years before we get another increase of the minimum wage at the national level.

Why? Because in recent years, you've needed Democrats to control Congress in order to pass an increase. Today's Republicans may be more united against it than ever before, but if the past has taught us anything, it's this: As the years go by, and the real value of the minimum wage is eroded by inflation, pressure will build until Republicans relent to Democratic demands for an increase. The last time this happened was in 2007, when a bill phasing in increases (up to the current level of $7.25 in 2009) was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by George W. Bush. Not only did every Democrat vote for the bill, but 82 Republicans in the House and 45 in the Senate did, too.

There's no telling what Donald Trump would do if such a bill reached his desk, since over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, he took just about every position imaginable on the minimum wage. At various points, he said that it should be increased, that it shouldn't be increased, and that there should be no federal minimum wage at all.

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But so long as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are in charge, Trump won't have to worry about any of this. And of course, Trump has assembled a Cabinet full of millionaires and billionaires who believe, deep in their hearts, that the only way to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder is by delivering huge tax breaks to those at the top. Surely there will be no one more opposed to the minimum wage in the Trump administration than the man charged with enforcing wage and labor laws, labor secretary Andy Puzder, CEO of the parent company of Hardee's and Carl's Jr. As one worker advocate told Mother Jones, "Puzder's past is riddled with class-action wage theft lawsuits, sexist remarks, and falsehoods that paint wage increases as 'job killers,' minimum-wage earners as entitled teenagers, and his own employees as lazy welfare recipients."

Eight years is a long time to go without a minimum wage raise, particularly when working full time at the minimum gets you only $14,500 a year. And this is part of why increases are so popular: Polling shows around 70 percent of the public supports increasing the minimum to $10.10 (as one Democratic bill proposed), and between 50 and 60 percent of Americans support boosting it to $15.

To get what Republicans refuse to allow on the federal level, Democrats and worker advocates have turned to state and local action, particularly ballot initiatives. Minimum wage initiatives almost always win at the ballot box; this year, initiatives increasing state wages passed in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington. Combine that with raises passed by state and local elected bodies, and there are dozens of places where minimum wages are set to rise this year.

But when you look at a map, you see exactly what you'd expect: The states with higher minimum wages are almost all blue states run by Democrats, and the states with the lowest minimums are red states run by Republicans. This is just one more way in which our local laws, not only on labor matters but also on social issues like abortion and marijuana legalization, are pushing Red America and Blue America farther apart. Blue America is operating on the theory that increasing workers' wages is good for everyone, while Red America's theory is that low wages, no union representation, and few taxes for businesses produce a climate that will bring jobs. But what kind of jobs, exactly?

In any case, in the Trump era, the Democratic Party has moved to the left on this issue, pulled there by its grassroots. When worker advocates began demanding a "living wage" of $15 an hour, most people considered that unrealistically high, and the standard position for a Democratic politician was that the minimum should be raised to $9 or $10 an hour. The debate has shifted, and that's no longer the case. Hillary Clinton started her 2016 campaign advocating for a $12 federal minimum, but under pressure from Bernie Sanders, she then said that she supported a $15 minimum, perhaps with stipulations that could make it lower in areas with a lower cost of living.

So $15 an hour is now all but the default Democratic position, even as Republicans hold firm against any increase at all. As we see more initiatives to increase wages on the state level, pressure will build for a federal increase. The only question is how long Republicans can hold out, and convince voters that they're the party that cares about working-class Americans, even when they are ideologically opposed to raising their pay.

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