Columns » Ernest Dumas

Arkansans agree: It's time to raise minimum wage

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The idea of raising the minimum wage gets traction, critics like to say, only in election years. So, because it is a vote-getter, President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress are pushing a wage bill this year, that is doomed to failure in a Congress controlled by Republicans.

An Arkansas group led by a Methodist minister is trying to get an initiative on the ballot to raise the state minimum wage in annual steps to $8.50 an hour, eight years after driving the state's political leaders, including Gov. Mike Huckabee, to raise it to $6.25 an hour. So Arkansas politicians facing the electorate this year are running to endorse it (Democrats) or running for cover (Republicans typically).

So is the minimum-wage debate just more cynical politics, Democrats trying to collect the votes of the 4 percent of the U.S. workforce that earns below the proposed new federal wage floor? If so, it's wasted, minimalist strategy. That quotient of the workforce, unless they are minorities, tends not to vote at all or to base its votes on anything but self-interest: guns, gays, race — well, you know the list.

But the politics of minimum wage is transparent, even if it does not track the paranoia of the right, that it's all about getting votes for politicians.

Here is the real politics. The minimum wage is universally popular in America, even far outside the disciples of organized labor. More than Europe or the rest of the developed world, the United States is a nation of workers, where toil is revered as the first value of citizenship. Whatever the chamber of commerce says or conservative economists aver, the vast majority of people believe that honest toil, no matter how menial or unskilled, is honorable and should be respected and rewarded with pay that will afford them a decent life.

The spiritually inclined take their guidance on the matter from Jesus: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." Most minimum-wage workers, by the way, are women.

So when Rev. Steve Copley's outfit ran a poll in 2006 about raising the minimum wage and linking it permanently to the cost-of-living index, 73 percent of people in this conservative state said yes. He was starting a petition drive to get it on the ballot as an initiated act.

No one doubted the poll so the business community ran to their antilabor Republican governor, Mike Huckabee, and begged him to summon the legislature to Little Rock and enact a wage raise, something a little less than the modest increase Copley was proposing and without indexing to the cost of living. Huckabee happily obliged and the legislature enacted the wage hike. In the regular legislative session a year earlier, Huckabee had opposed a modest increase in the minimum wage and, knowing that most people were paying no attention, Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike squashed the bill.

They are apt to approve it this year, if Copley's group can overcome the campaign to stifle the signature gathering and get it on the ballot. Unlike Huckabee, Gov. Beebe won't summon the legislature to a special session to pass a weaker bill because Republicans control the legislature and Republicans nowadays march to a different drummer than the people, mainly to Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth. It bears repeating here that a Republican governor enabled the Arkansas minimum-wage law. Winthrop Rockefeller, facing a conservative legislature made up of 132 Democrats and three Republicans, called a special session in the summer of 1968, before the election, and proposed a state wage floor. Shamed like their ally, the Arkansas State AFL-CIO, which had opposed Rockefeller, Democratic legislators meekly passed it.

These minimum-wage battles are always fought with battalions of economists — those on one side whose theories and studies suggest that many employers would cut their workforce and those on the other side who say the reduction would be small if any and the economic stimulus enormous.

But the pronouncements of academics and business economists don't weigh an ounce with that 73 percent, or whatever percentage that favors it this year. They know the drudges who do this toil and know that it will improve their lives and that their spending will recirculate in the community and redound to nearly everyone's benefit.

Copley's act will directly raise the pay of perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 Arkansans when its last stage kicks in, but opponents will cite business economists' projections that many others will be lopped off the payroll at a time when we are struggling with unemployment.

Forget the projections and go with history. From 1938 forward, minimum-wage increases have been followed by good job-growth years.

President Clinton's wage increase in 1996 was followed by some of the biggest job years in history.

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