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Minimum wage backers get boost from Obama

Martin Desmarais

Political support for a hike in minimum wage is high, with President Obama, Massachusetts lawmakers and political leaders across the country proffering different versions of wage hikes for the nation’s lowest-paid workers.

But Massachusetts labor activists aren’t taking their chances with a legislative fix; they’re sticking to their plan to put their proposal for a $10.50 hourly minimum wage on the 2014 statewide ballot.

Lew Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network and a steering committee member of Raise Up Massachusetts, an organization that has been leading the charge for a state ballot referendum to raise the minimum wage and ensure that all workers earn sick time if they or family members are ill, said it is a great boost to have President Obama enter the ring in the minimum wage fight, which he did on Feb. 12 when he signed an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for federal contract workers for all new federal contracts after Jan. 1, 2015.

However, he doesn’t believe the hike in minimum wage on federal jobs while have a big impact on employment overall or trigger any federal legislation on minimum wage for all workers.

“I think it is a good thing because when the president talks about something it increases focus on the issue,” Finfer said. “If he talks about it being important it reaches people and that is helpful.”

According to Finfer, a minimum wage bill in Massachusetts would impact 500,000 workers, whereas President Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage would likely not impact much more than 1,000 workers in the state.

“It is a small thing. It is the only thing in a sense he can legally do on his own,” Finfer said.

Finfer and members of his organization also do not expect any legislation from the federal government.

“The reality is that politically the Republicans in the House do not have any interest in voting for a minimum wage bill,” he said. “The chances of a federal bill passing are slim.”

“We have to do this work in Massachusetts,” he added.

Both President Obama and Gov. Deval Patrick called for increasing the minimum wage in addresses last month. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has also been outspoken in the need for minimum wage increase.

When President Obama signed the executive order to raise the minimum wage on federal contract workers, he said it has a wide potential of impact because there are currently hundreds of thousands of people working under contracts with the federal government who are currently making less than $10.10 an hour. Examples he gave of the jobs that could be impact included nursing assistants at veterans’ homes, concessions workers at National Parks, food workers catering to the military and grounds workers on military bases.

Following his remarks in his State of the Union address, President Obama touted the executive order as his move to set the example to U.S. lawmakers that the minimum wage should be raised. He pledged to continue to work with Congress to raise the minimum wage for all Americans through current legislation, which would see it rise in stages to $10.10 — including an index to increase with inflation — and also raise the minimum wage for tipped workers for the first time in 20 years. The president also said he will continue to support and encourage state and local efforts to increase the minimum wage.

Boston University Professor Peter Doeringer, an authority on labor relations and work organizations, said that President Obama’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for workers on federal contracts is an easy political move to make as it will have little impact on the federal contractors because the higher wage costs will be passed on to the government in the bidding process, but it will also have minimum impact on most American workers.

“The president is exercising the buying power of the federal government to accomplish a long-overdue increase in minimum wages for workers employed by federal contractors,” Doeringer said. “It may also have modest spillover benefits for private sector workers, particularly among government contractors who also operate in sectors outside of the federal government. But these spillovers are unlikely to affect employment in any significant way.”

If the ballot campaign is any indication, popular support is high for a minimum wage increase in Massachusetts.

Last fall, Raise Up Massachusetts and more than 50 Massachusetts community organizations conducted a campaign to collect signatures on petitions to have questions about minimum wage and sick time on the November 2014 election ballot. Each petition needed about 100,000 signatures by Nov. 20 to get a question or proposed measure on the ballot. About 280,000 signatures were collected — enough to place the questions on the ballot for a state-wide vote this fall. The petition for minimum wage collected over 150,000 signatures.

At the end of 2013, the state Senate passed a bill that would raise minimum wage from the current $8 an hour to $11 hour in the next two years. But the House has yet to vote or take up the bill, although House Speaker Robert DeLeo has indicated he would support the bill if its tied to reductions in the state’s unemployment insurance program designed to cut costs to businesses.

No action has been taken at all by either the Senate or the House on the sick time issue, so Raise Up Massachusetts is already moving ahead plans to get that question on the ballot next fall. Now, Finfer said, the organization expects to have to do the same for the minimum wage question.

“The Senate passed a good bill but things are more cloudy about whether the House will pass a strong bill and will they add other weakening pieces like a lower minimum wage for teens and cuts in unemployment benefits,” Finfer stated. “If the Legislature does not pass this by May 6, we can qualify it for a fall ballot vote if we gather a second round of voter signatures of around 30,000 during May and June. This is substantial work to do but we gathered 154,000 last fall so feel we can get this second group of signatures.”

Labor activists will specifically have nine weeks to collect the signatures needed if no minimum wage legislation comes through or if something is passed that is not strong enough to satisfy them.

By preparing for another signature drive, Finfer said they are covering all grounds.

“At least, in this case, we have an option if they don’t pass something or if they pass something that isn’t strong we can take something to the voters and then they can decide,” he said.