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article imageFight for $15: California, New York governors raise minimum wage

By Brett Wilkins     Apr 5, 2016 in Politics
In an historic move to address the growing problem of income inequality, the governors of the two most influential states in America signed bills raising their respective minimum wages to as high as $15 in the coming years.
Within hours of each other, California Gov. Jerry Brown and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, signed minimum wage increases into law on Monday. Amid chants of "sí se pudo" ("yes we could"), Brown put pen to paper at an event at the Ronald Reagan State Building Los Angeles, gradually raising the statewide minimum wage from $10 to $15 by 2022.
Cuomo announced his move at a festive rally with Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton at the Jakob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. Unlike California's move, which affects all workers equally, New York chose a tiered approach in which New York City workers will earn at least $15 by 2018 while outlying suburban counties will have until the end of 2021 to increase to $15. Minimum wage employees in the rest of New York state will get a raise from the current $9 to $12.50 by the end 2020.
"This new economy is not a fair economy for the middle class and the working families of this country," Cuomo acknowledged. "They feel that the American dream is slipping away."
"It's about time," Tommy Milton, leader of the 1,200-member Iron Workers Local 580 union in New York City, said of the move to $15. "It's not easy living in this state. It's very expensive," he told the Albany Times-Union.
In another significant move, Cuomo signed into law a measure granting 12 weeks of paid family leave for workers, to go into effect by 2021.
"This is about economic justice. It's about people. It's about creating a little tiny balance in a system that every day becomes more unbalanced," said Gov. Brown, who was accompanied by lawmakers and union supporters at the Los Angeles signing ceremony. "There's a lot of anger going on in the presidential campaign, and it may have many sources. But one of the sources certainly is the way the average American is being treated by this particular economy. Today we do something about that in a very significant way."
“This is an important day. It’s not the end of the struggle but it’s a very important step forward," added Brown.
“No one who works full time should live in poverty,” state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, (D-Los Angeles) added.
The move is expected to impact some 2.2 million workers in the nation's most populous state. Around 43 percent of California's workforce currently earns less than $15 an hour, according to the labor rights group Fight for $15.
Conservative politicians, along with corporate and other business interests, blasted the bicoastal wage hikes.
“Our job in this building is to help people climb the economic ladder, not cut off the bottom rungs," said California state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rockland). "That is exactly what will happen if we shove this unprecedented cost increase on businesses.”
“There is no question that a $15 minimum wage would have devastating impacts on small businesses in California," asserted Tom Scott, who heads the California branch of the lobby group National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). "Over 90 percent of our 22,000 small businesses across the state have told us in no uncertain terms that an increase in the minimum wage will negatively affect their ability to operate, and potentially put them at risk of closing their doors permanently. Ignoring the voices and concerns of the vast majority of job creators in this state is deeply concerning and illustrates why many feel Sacramento is broken.”
However, not all business owners agreed.
“All four of my employees will get a raise... and that’s good for them and my bottom line,” Teresa Gomez, owner of a Fresno tax services company, told Convenience Store Decisions. “I’ve found that when my employees earn more, they do a better job, they stick around longer and that improves customer satisfaction.”
Brown, who had previously been skeptical of raising the minimum wage to $15, raised eyebrows by saying during Monday's bill signing that "economically, minimum wages may not make sense.” But Brown then stated that work is “not just an economic equation” but is also “part of living in a moral community.”
“Morally and socially and politically, [minimum wages] make every sense because it binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way,” he insisted.
Brown acknowledged the role played by two separate ballot initiatives that would have left the question of a $15 minimum wage up to voters this November. Polling data shows more than two thirds of Californians support such a move.
“The initiative put on the ballot by SEIU gave a real thrust,” said Brown, referring to the Service Employees International Union, which sponsored one of the measures along with United Healthcare Workers West. “Without that, we probably wouldn’t be here today. Let’s be clear about that.”
The Democratic presidential candidates both applauded Monday's news, with Hillary Clinton, who backs a $12 federal minimum wage, accompanying Cuomo and declaring that the governor's move was a "real watershed" that is "going to sweep our country."
“What the governor did shows the way to getting an increased minimum wage at the federal level,” Clinton said.
"Not too long ago, the establishment told us that a $15 minimum wage was unrealistic," rival Bernie Sanders said in a statement. "Some thought it was 'pie-in-the-sky.' But a grassroots movement led by millions of working people refused to take 'no' for an answer. Loudly and clearly workers said, 'Yes we can increase the minimum wage, not just to $10.10 an hour, not just to $12 an hour, but to a living wage of $15 an hour."
While the Democratic Party officially advocates a $15 minimum wage, all three remaining Republican presidential candidates oppose the hike.
“We cannot do this if we are going to compete with the rest of the world,” GOP frontrunner and billionaire businessman Donald Trump recently said in opposition to raising the minimum wage.
The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25, among the lowest in the developed world, since 2009. By contrast, Australia's minimum hourly wage, which is tied to inflation, is currently AUD$17.29, or just over $13. Public support for higher minimum wages has been growing across the nation, bolstered by recent high-profile protest movements including Occupy Wall Street and Fight for $15, which has staged many nationwide protests mobilizing fast-food, retail and other service industry workers who are increasingly demanding a living wage and greater collective bargaining rights. Numerous states and cities have raised their minimum wages as a result, with Emeryville, CA ($16), Seattle ($15), San Francisco ($15) and Los Angeles ($15) leading the way.
In addition to raising its minimum wage, New York now also joins California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington and Washington, DC in offering paid family leave to workers caring for infants or sick relatives, or who are affected by troop deployments. Critics, including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, have called the glaring lack of guaranteed parental leave in America a "national embarrassment." The United States and Papua New Guinea—where the average income is less than $2,000 per year—are the only nations in the world that do not guarantee time off for new parents. Paid family leave can run six months or longer in many social democracies and even some developing nations.
Income and wealth inequality have become two of the biggest problems facing Americans today, reaching levels unseen since the Great Depression. While the share of income earned by the top 1 percent of US families has more than doubled since the 1970s, the share earned by the bottom 90 percent has plummeted over the same period. The richest 0.1 percent of Americans now have as much wealth as the poorest 90 percent combined. One out of every six Americans is poor, with child poverty rates soaring to 33 percent for Latinos and 40 percent for blacks. Economic mobility, long a hallmark of the so-called "American Dream," has taken a huge hit. According to the World Bank, the odds of escaping poverty are about the same today in India as in the United States.
US economic inequality began accelerating rapidly following the implementation of widely discredited "trickle-down" economic policies by the Ronald Reagan administration in 1980s, which lavished tax cuts and preferential treatment on wealthy corporations and individuals at the expense of the middle and working class and, especially, the poor. Social safety nets were shredded, even while corporate welfare reached historic levels. Successive administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have favored the wealthy—who are powerful and often make significant campaign contributions—at the expense of the poor for decades.
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