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labor Bernie Sanders in New Push for $15 Minimum Wage Under Biden: 'For Me, it's Morally Imperative'

Senator Bernie Sanders says the widespread suffering caused by the pandemic-induced economic crisis has made it “morally imperative” to increase the US’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Leftwing senator tells Guardian the chances of raising the federal minimum are better than ever with new president in White House

Senator Bernie Sanders says the widespread suffering caused by the pandemic-induced economic crisis has made it “morally imperative” to increase the US’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. And in an interview with the Guardian, Sanders and other lawmakers pushing for a higher minimum wage say the chances of enacting a $15 minimum are better than ever before now that President Joe Biden has called for a $15 federal minimum as part of his emergency Covid legislative package.

Raising the minimum to $15 would more than double the current $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage, but many Republicans oppose the move, saying it would hurt business.

In an interview, Sanders, who championed a $15 minimum wage as a presidential candidate in 2016 and 2020, voiced excitement about the prospects of raising the minimum wage, which hasn’t increased since 2009, the longest stretch without an increase since Congress first enacted a minimum wage in 1938.

“This country faces an enormous economic crisis that is aggravated by the pandemic,” Sanders said. “We’re looking at terrible levels of unemployment. We’re looking at growing income and wealth inequality. What concerns me as much as anything is that half our people are living paycheck to paycheck. Millions of people are trying to survive on starvation wages. For me, it’s morally imperative that we raise the minimum wage to a living wage that’s at least $15 an hour.”

The House voted last July to raise the minimum wage to $15 in steps through 2025, but then Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on it. With the White House, Senate and House under Democratic control, Sanders said the chances are good to enact a $15 minimum, although he said it would be hard to attract 10 Republican Senators to support it, making it hard to overcome a filibuster.

Sanders, the incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, sees another route to passage, saying it could be done under the “budget reconciliation” – a process where measures deemed to have budgetary impact can be approved by simple majority vote.

“It clearly has to be done by reconciliation. That’s something I’m working very hard on,” said Sanders.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which played a pivotal role in backing the Fight for $15, sees considerable momentum behind a $15 minimum.

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That push has come a long way since the Fight for $15 began in 2012, when 200 fast-food workers in New York went on a one-day strike. “We are incredibly proud that the momentum around $15 solidified as part of the presidential campaign, and that the Biden-Harris administration is so committed to get it done that they’ve put it in the first action of Congress for Covid emergency relief,” Henry said. “There is wind at our backs.”

Henry noted that Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff campaigned for a $15 minimum in their successful Senate races in Georgia. Moreover, Florida voters, while backing Donald Trump, voted overwhelmingly – 61% to 39% – to raise that state’s minimum to $15 by 2026.

“A $15 minimum is the single most concrete way to reduce racial inequality, put money in people’s pockets and make material change in people’s lives,” Henry said. The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive thinktank, found that raising the minimum to $15 would help 25% of Black workers, 19.1% of Hispanic workers, 13.1% of White workers and 10.8% of Asian workers.

A Pew poll found that Americans favor increasing the minimum to $15, by 67% to 33%. Henry warned that “any elected official in Congress who dares to stand against us on this is going to pay a big political price”.

Rita Blalock, a McDonald’s cook in Raleigh, North Carolina, prays for a $15 minimum. Blalock, who earns $10 an hour after nearly 10 years at McDonald’s, said she often relies on food pantries and can’t afford her $200 rent every two weeks at a rooming house. “Fortunately, I can eat free at work,” said Blalock, whose work schedule has been cut to 20 hours many weeks.

Asked what a $15 minimum would mean, Blalock, 54, said: “Oh my God, I could afford rent. I could eat a little better. I could finally buy me some clothes.”

Blalock has participated in many of the Fight for $15’s one-day strikes. “I feel if it doesn’t pass in [Biden’s] first 100 days, it’s going to be swept under the rug,” she said.

A $15 minimum faces strong Republican opposition from senators including Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, who has said that “if the federal government mandates a universal $15 minimum wage, many low-income Americans will lose their current jobs and find fewer job opportunities in the future.”

Michael Saltsman, managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, a corporate-backed research group, also said it would be a bad time to enact a $15 minimum.

“You’ve got a lot of businesses hanging from a thread,” he said. “A $15 minimum is an irresponsible proposal at any time, and it’s particularly so right now.”

Saltsman said the Senate should not vote on a $15 minimum via reconciliation, arguing that its budgetary effect would be minimal. With the Senate divided 50-50, he questioned whether Democrats could muster 50 votes for a $15 minimum, suggesting that centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia might balk at it.

Bill Dauster, a top aide to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, wrote in a recent editorial that raising the minimum would have clear budgetary effects and could be voted on through reconciliation.

Many Republicans say the federal minimum should remain at $7.25, leaving any increases to individual states. Walmart chief Doug McMillon says that if there is a minimum wage increase, it should take “geographic differences” into account, considering the differing costs of living in, say, California and Mississippi.

The Congressional Budget Office forecast that 1.3 million workers would become jobless due to an increase to $15. That study also forecast that 27 million workers would receive pay increases thanks to a $15 minimum, and the number of people in poverty would decline by 1.3 million.

Arindrajit Dube, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said a review of economic studies shows that “more ambitious minimum wage policies have yet to produce any clear impact on jobs, even though it has certainly raised wages and reduced inequality”.

“Overall, the body of literature shows it has very little effect on low-wage jobs,” Dube said. “My work shows it leads to a reduction in poverty and increased family earnings, and maybe 35¢ on the dollar goes back to the government through reduced public assistance.”

Differing with Dube, economists David Neumark and Peter Shirley, in a newly released review of minimum wage research, conclude that “most of the evidence indicates the opposite – that minimum wages reduce low-skilled employment,” with the strongest effects on teens, young adults and the less-educated.

Senator Sanders said it’s outrageous that the purchasing power of the minimum wage has declined 30% since the late 1960s. “The fact that President Biden moved aggressively on this is important to the workers who will benefit,” Sanders said.

“It signals to the entire country that workers cannot continue to live on starvation wages, and I hope that message gets out to employers all across the country.”