Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Bond shows guts on minimum wage

It was in the Great Depression that the United States decided as a national doctrine that there was a minimum sum of money that every honest hour of work by an American was worth, whatever the content of the labor. Then it was 25 cents an hour, which would be about $3.50 now adjusted for inflation.

For more than a quarter-century, the government has grown less attached to the doctrine so that the federal minimum wage now is only $5.15 an hour, the smallest pay relative to average wages since the 1950s. It has remained $5.15 since 1997, when President Clinton craftily persuaded a Republican Congress to raise it.

Monday, the U.S. Senate defeated proposals by Republicans ($6.25 an hour) and Democrats ($7.35 an hour) to raise it in steps. Democrats, being in the minority, could not hope to pass theirs. The Republican version was filed to give GOP senators a way to get on record voting for the little people without businesses actually having to pay the proposed wage.

A few brave souls in the Arkansas legislature, including Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville and Dwayne Dobbins of North Little Rock, have stepped into the breach.

They introduced HB 2499, which would raise the minimum wage in Arkansas by a buck, to $6.15 an hour.

Arkansas imposed its own minimum wage in 1968. The Democratic Party has always been the tribune of the working people and Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shamed the Arkansas Legislature by proposing a minimum wage law.

The majority Democrats had to vote for it or lose their claim to representing the interests of common folks.

The Arkansas law applies only to a few thousand workers in businesses that are too small to be covered by the federal law. The legislature has generally kept pace with changes in the federal law. But HB 2499 goes further. For the first time, it would cover workers now protected only by the federal wage floor. Some 56,000 workers — retail clerks, nursing home and hospital orderlies, fast-food workers, janitorial workers, even a few manufacturing employees — would get a small raise this summer. They would still fall far below a poverty-level income.

Some 15 states now have raised the minimum wage above the federal floor. Wouldn’t it be something if Arkansas, which has a higher percentage of minimum-wage workers than all but two states, joined them?

The business lobby will come down hard on this little bill. It is not likely to emerge from committee to a vote on the full House floor, but let us thank this band of lawmakers who would have us uphold the value of work.

The lobbyists will say that raising the minimum wage will force employers to lay off people, that these low-wage workers are just mostly kids working their way through school or paying for a car, that low-wage workers anyway are moving their way up the economic ladder to good jobs.

None of it is true but those arguments will sell. Contrary to what the lobbyists will say, nearly every raise in the minimum wage has been followed by growth, not decline.

Surely we can all agree that there is no honest hour of toil in this affluent society that is not worth $6.15.