Senate Democrats Move to Raise the Minimum Wage in Crucial Step Toward Economic Justice

Raising the minimum wage for all American workers—especially the essential workers who have put their lives on the line during the pandemic—is an important first step toward addressing racial and economic inequities.

Senate Democrats Move to Raise the Minimum Wage in Crucial Step Toward Economic Justice
A fast food worker strike organized by the Fight for $15 in Milwaukee in May 2014. (Joe Brusky / Flickr)

After flipping the Senate following key wins in Georgia, Democrats are wasting no time moving forward on key promises made on the campaign trail—including raising the federal minimum wage. This week, Democrats in both the House and Senate reintroduced the Raise the Wage Act, a bill to increase the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009, setting a $15 an hour target by 2025. President Biden has also signaled his support for a $15 minimum wage, which is part of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

This legislation comes at a crucial moment amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, which has disproportionately devastated communities of color and especially women of color, who have shouldered the brunt of COVID-related job losses. Women of color are also more likely to work on the frontlines of the pandemic as domestic workers and service workers, risking their lives to offer essential services, only to be underpaid. 

“Last session, the people’s house, with Chairman [Bobby] Scott and Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi in the leadership, passed the ‘Raise the Wage Act’ and we’re ready to do it again,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, during a Tuesday call. “And now, we have a President Biden who believes that we should pass a $15 minimum wage and a Senate led by Democrats ready to work for the people.”

While introducing the Raise the Wage Act to the Senate alongside Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Ver.) also criticized companies for paying wages too low for their workers to afford food and rent, calling the current $7.25 federal minimum wage “a starvation wage.” 

“In the United States of America, a job must lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it,” Sanders said on Tuesday.

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House and Senate Republicans overwhelmingly oppose the Raise the Wage Act, citing unsubstantiated claims that a living wage would cause unemployment or bankrupt corporations and employers. Contrary to these concerns, while millions of Americans have lost their jobs, savings and health insurance, American billionaires increased their net worth by more than $931 billion from the beginning of the pandemic through December 2020.

“My hope is that we will bring Republicans on board,” said Sanders, incoming Senate Budget Committee Chair. “If we cannot get enough Republicans to vote for this legislation under regular order we must not take no for an answer.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer echoed this sentiment on Tuesday, where expressed his desire for a bipartisan deal, but admitted the need for urgent action: “The work must move forward, preferably with our Republican colleagues, but without them if we must.”

Despite Congressional Republicans’ hard-line response on raising the minimum wage, there’s broad bipartisan support for this policy across the country. In the 2020 election, Florida voters—a state Donald Trump carried—overwhelmingly voted for a ballot measure to increase the state minimum wage to $15 an hour.

In a nod to the urgency of economic relief and supporting workers, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin suggested Democrats could use a process known as budget reconciliation to pass the Raise the Wage Act without any Republican votes, with a simple majority vote instead of the 60 votes normally needed to advance legislation. In 2017, Republicans notably used budget reconciliation to pass the notorious GOP tax cut law, which extended generous tax breaks to billionaires and corporations.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession have exacerbated already existing economic inequities, which have always fallen hardest on women and especially women of color. In the final quarter of 2020, women accounted for all American job losses. Women and disproportionately women of color comprise the majority of service, retail and domestic workers, which are some of the sectors that have been most impacted by the pandemic. Women are also more likely than men to be forced out of their jobs by remote learning, child care, and other domestic needs created by the pandemic.

Without bold action to support workers through the public health and economic crisis we face today, these inequities will only deepen, and disproportionately impact Black, brown and communities of color. Raising the minimum wage for all American workers—and especially the essential workers who have put their lives on the line during the pandemic—is an important first step toward addressing these inequities.

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Kylie Cheung writes about reproductive and survivor justice, and is the author of Survivor Injustice: State-Sanctioned Abuse, Domestic Violence, and the Fight for Bodily Autonomy, available Aug. 15.