DC-Area Unionists, Low-Wage Workers Celebrate Enactment Of Minimum Wage Hikes

Thursday, January 16, 2014

DC-Area Unionists, Low-Wage Workers Celebrate Enactment Of Minimum Wage Hikes(Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO)

D.C. area unionists and low-wage workers joined Jan. 15 in a festive celebration of new minimum wage hike laws in the nation’s capital and its two big Maryland suburban counties – landmarks in the national drive to raise the wages of the nation’s poorest workers. The gala at the AFL-CIO headquarters marked the signing of the D.C. law to raise the city’s minimum, now $8.25 an hour, to $11.50 hourly in three steps by 2016.  It also includes paid sick leave for restaurant workers. Before that, the two big Maryland suburban counties, Montgomery and Prince George’s, acting in concert with the capital, raised their minimums over the same time period to the same level.  The federal minimum, $7.25 hourly, now covers the counties. That joint raise is important: It prevents businesses, principally restaurants, from playing off one area against another to pay their workers less.  But the hike still leaves one major hole: D.C.’s Virginia suburbs, which cannot raise wages unless the state legislature lets them.  Advocates said the lawmakers in Richmond are the next target.

“This evening, our chant is not ‘Yes, we can,’ or ‘Yes, we will,’ but ‘Yes, we did!’” exclaimed Metro Washington Council President Jos Williams, whose council led the fight for the hike in the District, and who emceed the evening, which followed a debrief with key activists led by Williams and attended by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre. Shuler called the local effort “the kind of coalition we need to bottle and spread across the country.” Williams said that it was really the “struggle, tenacity and determination” of the low-wage workers and the unionists to help “those at the bottom” seeking to better themselves that won the fight.

The ceremony featured a parade of union leaders and politicians, including one latecomer to the cause: D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D).  He signed the law that morning, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Birthday, as soon as it reached him, he said.  Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and Prince George’s Executive Rushern Baker, both Democrats, signed their counties’ increases long before. What Gray left unsaid was that he first proposed studying the issue, then proposed a raise to $10 an hour and that he signed the wage hike only after the council voted 13-0 for it.  He also hadn’t planned a signing ceremony until the Metro Council prodded him. Gray also had to move, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), reminded the crowd, after the mayor vetoed a law that would have raised the minimum wage at non-union “big box” stores to $12.50 hourly.  That law was aimed at Wal-Mart, known for its notoriously low wages and bad benefits.   “It was a defeat, but out of that came the strength to move the minimum wage legislation” on a regional level, Mendelson said. “If you make $7.25 an hour, you can’t make ends meet,” added Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., whose district includes parts of Prince George’s.   “When you have to ask for low income heating assistance, food stamps and rental subsidies, that’s wrong. "And the work is not done,” she added, referring to both Virginia and efforts to raise the federal minimum.
- special report by Mark Gruenberg, Press Associates, Inc. for Union City; photos by Chris Garlock


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