Amid a growing national conversation about income inequality, Democrats in Connecticut and throughout the nation have seized upon the minimum wage as a wedge issue in advance of the November elections.
President Barack Obama is among those backing a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, while a Connecticut lawmaker would like to see a $15 hourly wage for workers supporting a family.
“I would eventually like to see us get up to a living wage … that would allow people to provide … for their families,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, a Democrat from Sprague who is co-chairwoman of the legislature’s labor committee. Minimum-wage workers ought to be able to afford a home, send their kids to college and take a vacation now and then, she said.
Supporters of increasing the minimum wage are tapping a vein of populist frustration over a growing income gap. They are bolstered by polls showing widespread support, even among Republican voters, for a pay hike for low-wage workers.
Two days after Connecticut’s minimum wage rose to $8.70 an hour, the state Democratic Party used the issue to attack the field of Republicans running — or weighing a run — for governor.
“This is an issue that has broad, bipartisan support,” James Hallinan, a spokesman for Connecticut Democrats, said Friday. “It resonates with Connecticut voters and we will continue to highlight that the Democrats stand with working families.”
Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola dismissed the Democrats’ strategy as a “campaign tactic right out of the Obama/DNC playbook.”
“But hopefully the voters will see through this,” Labriola said. “With Connecticut’s real unemployment rate at nearly 12 percent, one has to wonder how raising employers’ costs will improve our hiring crisis. It will more likely result in greater automation and higher unemployment, especially at the entry level.”
Tom Foley, a businessman from Greenwich who is considering a run for governor, expressed sympathy for the plight of low-wage workers. “I believe that the minimum wage ought to be something that works for families in Connecticut,” he said. “We don’t want to drive additional jobs out of state, but we want to make sure people can earn a decent living.”
Foley, who was the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee, said he backs the two-step minimum wage increase enacted by state lawmakers in 2013. Under the law, the wage will rise to $9 an hour on Jan. 1, 2015.
“It is, I would think, impossible to support a family on the minimum wage in Connecticut with just one job,” Foley said.
The movement to raise the minimum wage has largely stalled in Congress despite being championed by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro and other liberal lawmakers. However, it has taken hold in cities and states nationwide. Voters south of Seattle approved a ballot measure raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for workers at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. New Jersey voters also backed a wage increase in a November referendum.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat who expressed skepticism about increasing the minimum wage to $9.75, signed on as an enthusiastic supporter once the amount of the increase was scaled back.
“The governor believes that the state’s new minimum wage, which will go up to $9 next year, strikes the right balance,” said his spokesman, Andrew Doba. “He also believes that federal action on this issue would be welcome, though with the tea party running Congress, that is unlikely. Thankfully in Connecticut, we have a different dynamic. Even though every single Republican in the legislature sided with tea party conservatives by voting against an increase in the minimum wage, Democrats – led by the governor – stood up and did the right thing.”
Many Republicans at both the state and federal level remain opposed to raising the minimum wage, saying that it would flatten the economic recovery and further weaken an already frail job market. “My concern is what this does to small business and medium-sized businesses,” said Mark Boughton, the mayor of Danbury, who is exploring a run for governor.
Boughton voted against a minimum wage increase when he served in the legislature in 2000; he says he opposed the bill because it also contained a provision that would have allowed 15-year-olds to work until 11 p.m.
But ultimately, Boughton said, the debate over raising the minimum wage is the wrong discussion. “The Democratic plan is to have people aspire to earn the minimum wage,” he said. “We’re going to aspire for people to earn much above the minimum wage. … The Democrats routinely set their sights extraordinarily low and that’s not what America is about.”
Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, another Republican exploring a run for governor, voted against the current minimum wage increase, which was approved by the Democratically controlled legislature in 2013.
“I opposed this because I support business and I want them to succeed,” she said. “They provide jobs that help people rise up the economic ladder and succeed. But right now, businesses are struggling to pay their operating expenses. They’re having a hard enough time just keeping the lights on.”
Boucher grew up in a working-class family in Naugatuck; she said her father had to take a low-paying job when he was laid off from his factory position. Both she and her brother worked minimum-wage jobs at a hamburger place in Waterbury.
Yet Boucher said that when she talks to people about the issues that matter to them, the minimum wage is rarely mentioned. “It appears that this is political,” she said. “The Democrats are trying to make Republicans look like they want to harm people, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
By Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant.