Minimum wage backers get boost from Obama

Martin Desmarais | 2/26/2014, 10:05 a.m.

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.