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Last week, members of Congress had the opportunity to show their commitment to the millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet and to create a prosperous future for all America. Congress had the chance to raise the incomes of 28 million Americans and help millions of families lift themselves out of poverty by voting to pass the Minimum Wage Fairness Act. They chose instead to kill the legislation.
According to John Podesta, “the strongest periods of economic growth in the 20th Century were also times when incomes rose across the board.” It is no wonder that so many Americans are suffering through tough economic times when the median per capita income in the United States has remained virtually unchanged since 2000.
A recent New York Times analysis highlights how the American middle class has fallen from one that was once more prosperous, to the present, where “most American families are paying a steep price for high and rising income inequality.” The analysis also found that a driving factor contributing to the anemic income growth in the United States is a lower minimum wage.
The members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who I represent, have and continue to relentlessly support a federal minimum wage increase. While they earn more than the minimum wage, they know we’re all in this together. They know that increasing the federal minimum wage is not only the right thing to do, but doing so will grow the middle class and make our economy more stable.
Congress has not voted to increase the federal minimum wage in seven years, and their failure to do so, along with our inadequate labor laws, has directly contributed to our slow economic recovery. Robert B. Reich, who served as Labor secretary during the Clinton administration, stated, “One reason the recovery is so anemic is that 95 percent of the gains since the recovery started have gone to the top 1 percent.” The minimum wage has remained stagnant and, due to inflation, no longer constitutes a livable wage. At the same time, the top 1 percent continues to prosper. The combination of these two trends has created record levels of inequality in this country.
If wages were tied directly to worker productivity, the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, would be $18.67. The legislation to raise the wage to $10.10 seemed modest in comparison. A higher minimum wage would have improved the lives of so many low-income Americans, increasing consumer spending and promoting positive ripple effects throughout the economy.
I have been fighting most of my life to promote a strong working class to foster a successful and enduring nation. Our country needs leaders who understand that every American should have the opportunity, the right, to achieve economic security and income opportunity.
We are fortunate to have leaders who understand the need to make America stronger. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, has been a longtime advocate of income opportunity, consistently supporting and working to raise the minimum wage.
As a senator, Clinton wrote the Standing with Minimum Wage Earners Act in 2006 and 2007, tying Congressional salary increases to an increase in the minimum wage. Regarding her bill, Clinton said, “every time Congress gives itself a raise in the future that Americans get a raise too. This is the right and fair thing to do for hardworking Americans.”
Members of Congress have the luxury of deciding whether to accept the automatic raise they’re entitled to under the law. If only the rest of America was so lucky.
Unfortunately, Congress didn’t pass Clinton’s legislation and this week it voted down the Minimum Wage Fairness Act, keeping the federal minimum wage stagnant at $7.25 an hour. With 71 percent of Americans, their constituents, supporting a raise in the minimum wage, it is clear what should have been done. As Clinton has said, “We should be working to keep a basic bargain with all Americans: If you work hard and are responsible, you will not live in poverty.”
At a time where we’ve seen the rich getting richer while the middle class and low-income families suffer, Congress needs to understand that we can’t be successful as a nation with nearly 50 million people living in poverty.
Some members of Congress still don’t get it. But this is not the end — we must keep the conversation going and continue to work to give America the raise it deserves — until everyone has a fair shot. The fight is far from over.
R. Thomas Buffenbarger is the international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Buffenbarger is a member of the AFL-CIO executive council and also serves as vice president of IndustriALL.