The New York Times
By: Michael D. Shear
April 2, 2014
The more President Obama talks about the need to raise the federal minimum wage, the less likely it appears that Republicans in Congress are inclined to do it.
But the stalemate matters less and less. In the last 14 months, since Mr. Obama first called for the wage increase in his 2013 State of the Union address, seven states and the District of Columbia have raised their own minimum wages, and 34 states have begun legislative debates on the matter. Activists in an additional eight states are pursuing ballot referendums this year to demand an increase in wages for their lowest-paid workers.
The result is an outside-the-Beltway variation on Mr. Obama's pledge to use his executive powers to bypass an obstructionist Republican Party in Congress. In this case, White House aides said they believed that Mr. Obama's feverish rhetorical push for a higher minimum federal wage, to $10.10 per hour from $7.25, has helped generate political pressure on states to act.
On Wednesday, the president continued the push at the University of Michigan, the latest in an almost weekly focus on the subject in speeches, blog posts, radio addresses and events. In March, Mr. Obama delivered remarks on the topic at universities in Florida and Connecticut. In February, he issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors. In January, he demanded a raise for America's workers at a Costco in Maryland.
State Actions on the Minimum Wage
President Obama's proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25 is unlikely to pass through Congress, but several states have been tackling the issue on their own.
"Nobody who works full time should be raising a family in poverty," Mr. Obama said Wednesday as he campaigned for the minimum-wage increase in Michigan, where a coalition of labor and other groups is trying to collect signatures to force action by the Legislature or put the issue to voters in the fall.
Mr. Obama praised the efforts of the states to raise their own wages, but he chided Republicans in Washington. "If we're going to do right by our fellow Americans, we need Congress to get on board," he said, adding that lawmakers should put it to a vote on Capitol Hill.
"You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise," Mr. Obama said to thunderous applause.
California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island increased their minimum wages in 2013, while Delaware, West Virginia and the District of Columbia did the same this year, researchers at the National Conference of State Legislatures said. In addition to the efforts in Michigan, advocates in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico and South Dakota are all trying to push the issue with voters this fall, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.
The state minimum-wage actions, which have created a patchwork of minimum wages across the country, are not the uniform step that Mr. Obama and his allies would prefer. Some states have minimum wages on the books that are below the current federal level of $7.25 an hour, meaning that the federal level automatically applies to them. Other states already require wages to start at $8, $8.25 or higher. The District of Columbia, which already has an $8.25 per hour minimum wage, could have the highest in the nation on July 1, 2016, when it rises to $11.25.
But Mr. Obama's advisers have embraced the legislative flurry across the country as a second-best alternative that can work politically and substantively. Local increases in the minimum wage will help workers and pump money into those economies, they say.
"Presidential mobilization created the environment in which there is support for making change on the state level," said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. "We're always looking for ways to break through."
One such effort came after a meeting in the Roosevelt Room several weeks ago with the governors of four Northeastern states to discuss how to push the minimum-wage issue. The result was a presidential trip to Connecticut for a joint appearance with the four Democratic governors: Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Peter Shumlin of Vermont.
The White House is also running a weekly strategy session with Capitol Hill lawmakers, top White House political advisers and outside groups like labor unions who are eager to see a higher minimum wage.
In response, opponents have jumped to action. The National Retail Federation announced on Tuesday that it will treat votes in Congress for a minimum-wage increase as a negative factor in its rankings of business-friendly lawmakers. David French, the group's top lobbyist, said Mr. Obama was pushing an issue that would not help the economy.
"There's so much collateral damage you can do to job creation by setting a minimum wage," Mr. French said. "The higher you set that minimum wage, the more collateral damage you do. Politics is being played here."
Republican governors in Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico have vetoed legislative efforts to raise the minimum wage, echoing concerns among their Congressional counterparts about the potential for job losses. (New Jersey voters subsequently approved a constitutional amendment last year to increase the minimum wage anyway.)
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said the president's plan for a rise in the minimum wage would "increase costs for consumers and eliminate jobs for those who need them the most."
But despite the opposition, and even without Mr. Obama's efforts, the momentum behind a minimum-wage increase is building, according to experts who have tracked the issue for years.
Jeanne Mejeur, a senior researcher at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the wave of action in the states on the minimum wage was most likely a reaction to the lack of movement on the issue at the national level.
"When Congress doesn't act on the minimum wage, that's when the states start looking at it," said Ms. Mejeur, who has studied the minimum wage for 15 years. She said there had been previous waves of interest at the state level, but the president's efforts appeared to have encouraged states to seek a higher minimum wage.
"This is the first time where there have been quite a few states that have gone over the threshold of $10 per hour," she said. "This is the first time that I've seen the states proposing these kinds of numbers."