Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is embarking on his latest campaign to raise the federal minimum wage, setting up a potential legislative battle that could force conservative members of the Democratic caucus who voted against raising the minimum wage to shift or defend their position as they seek reelection.
In 2021, the House passed legislation to raise the minimum from $7.25 to $15 an hour, but it failed in the Senate despite a slim Democratic majority. Five of the eight Democratic caucus members who voted against the measure must either run for reelection in 2024 or retire after their current term, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona), Sen. Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and Sen. John Tester (D-Montana).
So far, only Tester has announced a reelection bid, according to Roll Call, but there is still plenty of time before the campaign season heats up. Progressives have vowed to launch primary challenges against lawmakers who rejected raising the minimum wage, which is very popular among voters. Sinema left the Democratic Party in December but could still face a Democrat who supports a minimum wage hike if she chooses to run in the general election.
Senate Republicans unanimously opposed the 2021 minimum wage bill, but only 10 Republicans will be up for reelection in 2024, when Democrats will be defending 23 seats to preserve their razor-thin majority. However, if Senate Democrats unite behind raising the minimum wage, it could easily become a top campaign issue for hammering Republicans.
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at a measly $7.25 an hour since 2009, an extremely low wage floor compared to other wealthy nations and less than half the estimated $16 an hour that one adult with no children needs to meet the basic costs of living in the average large city. A minimum wage paycheck lost 27 percent of its purchasing power since 2009 and is now worth less in real wages than at any point in time since 1956, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In other words, a minimum wage earner could afford to buy more groceries or school supplies 60 years ago than they can today. Meanwhile, wealthy households have seen their incomes balloon as incomes for low- and middle-income families stagnated. CEO pay in the United States rose by a staggering 1,322 percent between 1978 and 2020 while pay for the typical worker grew by just 18 percent.
“Congress can no longer ignore the needs of the working class of this country,” Sanders wrote. “At a time of massive and growing income and wealth inequality and record-breaking corporate profits, we must stand up for working families — many of whom are struggling every day to provide a minimal standard of living for their families.”
Sanders has said the federal minimum wage should be at least $17 an hour, and the senator is expected to announce fresh legislation in a press conference with economists and union leaders on May 4. The wage hike would likely be instituted gradually over the course of several years to allow time for businesses to adapt.
Sanders admits in his op-ed that even $17 is not a living wage — enough to afford basic living costs such as food and rent — in many parts of the country. This includes his home state of Vermont, where $19 is considered a living wage for a household with one child and two working adults, but the statewide minimum wage is only $13 an hour. In Louisiana, where the minimum wage is $7.25, an adult in a similar household must earn $18 an hour to make ends meet.
As Congress stalls, states and cities across the country have raised the minimum wage, but the wage floor is still locked in at $7.25 an hour in 20 mostly red states. In 26 states, conservatives responded to local pushes for wage hikes by passing “preemption” laws that prevent cities and counties from raising the minimum wage within their borders, even in urban areas where the cost of living is much higher than the rest of the state.
A lower wage floor means less pay for all low-wage workers, and workers are 46 percent more likely to make less than $15 an hour in states that have not raised the minimum wage compared to those that have, according to the Economic Policy Institute. A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found that two-thirds of Americans support raising the minimum wage, including 71 percent of younger workers.
Sanders argues that the state-level politics around raising the minimum wage show that the issue cuts across partisan lines and could sway swing voters in upcoming elections. Ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage in 12 states — New Jersey, South Dakota, Arkansas, Alaska, Washington, Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, Nevada and Nebraska — succeeded with 55 percent of the vote or more over the last decade, according to Sanders.
“And these are not just strong ‘blue states’ voting for economic justice,” Sanders wrote. “In the recent November 2022 midterm election, two states that voted in Republican governors, Nebraska and Nevada, voted to raise the minimum wage. In 2020, the citizens of Florida, with a Republican governor and two Republican senators, also voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
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