WASHINGTON – Bernie Sanders, Josh Hawley and Amazon are rarely on the same side of an issue.
But years of stagnant wages that have failed to keep up with the costs of living and the political realignment pushed by Donald Trump are bringing together more than just Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont; Hawley, the Republican Senator from Missouri; and Amazon, one of the largest companies in the United States.
Minimum wage policy has been turned upside down, dividing the business community and turning populists on the right and left into strange bedfellows.
Progressives were outraged after the White House acceded to a Senate MP’s decision that an increase in the minimum wage to $ 15 an hour could not be included in the pending Covid-19 relief bill. in Congress. President Joe Biden has promised to try again.
For the first time in years, Democrats can find a receptive audience from major business interests and some Republicans to raise the minimum wage, though not as high as $ 15. Even the US Chamber of Commerce, Washington’s business lobbying titan, says the current federal minimum of $ 7.25 is “out of date.”
Holly Sklar, who leads a coalition of hundreds of companies supporting a $ 15 minimum wage called Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, said: “This is 2021. So regardless of what people thought of $ 15 in 2012, 2013 , 2014 or 2015, many time has passed. It should look different. The world has changed. “
‘What business do they have?’
Corporate America is in the midst of a reboot, not only because of the Democratic inauguration of Washington, but also because of the sweeping changes that companies say are responding to public protests about race and justice.
What the left sees as a realignment has sparked a conservative backlash.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference, once the bastion of pro-business libertarianism, a panel last month condemned the “Awakening of Corporate America.” But at the same conference, Trump campaign veteran Steve Cortes argued that a $ 15 minimum wage should be a key pillar of a future Republican platform, alongside “border sovereignty” and “toughness in trade. “.
Amazon, which raised its starting wage to $ 15 an hour, is trying to lead the charge and is actively lobbying Congress, having run full-page ads in The New York Times supporting the Wage Increase Act. Target and Best Buy have also set their lowest wages at $ 15 an hour, while Walmart set their minimum at $ 11 and Costco just climbed to $ 16.
“We have seen the positive impact this has had on our employees, their families and their communities,” Amazon said in a blog post.
Bipartisan support is growing, though not necessarily by $ 15.
At least six Republican senators have spoken out in favor of raising wages to $ 10 an hour or more; Hawley proposed a wage of $ 15 an hour for companies with revenues of more than $ 1 billion.
“For decades, wages for American workers have been stagnant, while monopoly corporations have consolidated industry after industry, securing record profits for CEOs and investment bankers,” Hawley, a potential presidential candidate who faced trouble after cheer on Trump supporters outside the Capitol on Jan.6, he said in a statement.
Others on the right view Amazon’s action as selfish. Critics pointing to other parts of Washington that are putting pressure on Amazon, some of them over antitrust concerns and the company’s working conditions, argue that the company could use some goodwill points.
And they say Amazon isn’t talking about business, but is trying to drive its competitors out of business by forcing a cost increase that small businesses can’t absorb.
“Is it to ingratiate yourself with the new Biden administration? I have to say yes,” said Alfred Ortiz, CEO of Job Creators Network, a conservative small business network founded by Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus. “What business do they have dictating to these small businesses that they should pay $ 15 an hour?”
The group recently put up a billboard in New York’s Times Square asking, “How does Amazon sweep away its Main Street competitors without getting dirty?” The answer: “They get Congress to pass a $ 15 minimum wage.”
Amazon’s move to $ 15 came only after Sanders introduced a bill in 2018 dubbed the “Stop BEZOS Act,” which would have forced companies like Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos, to pay the bill for network programs. government security used by employees, such as food stamps. .
“We listened to our critics, we thought a lot about what we wanted to do, and we decided we want to lead,” Bezos said at the time.
Opponents of the minimum wage increase are increasingly targeting Amazon to portray its fight as one that pits big companies against small ones, especially as Amazon’s profits soared as small restaurants and family-friendly stores were hit by the decline. pandemic-induced recession.
“If you’re already paying more than $ 15, then you want your competitors to pay more than $ 15 as well,” said Jerry Parrish, chief economist for the Florida Chamber Foundation, who fought in a referendum to raise the minimum wage last year. .
‘Reach an agreement’
Traditionally, the minimum wage has been broken along a simple divide in Washington: businesses and their Republican allies on the one hand and workers and their Democratic allies on the other.
But the fight for the minimum wage is now divided into three camps, none of which perfectly fit the expected ideological or business groupings: There are those who support a full $ 15 minimum wage, those who oppose raising the wage at all, and a large group in the middle. open to raising the minimum to, say, $ 10 an hour, but not all the way to $ 15.
The third camp includes centrists in Congress, such as Senators Joe Manchin, DW.Va., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and major business lobbies, such as the Business Roundtable, which represents some of the most senior CEOs. powerful of the world, and Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber, with its imposing Beaux Arts headquarters in Lafayette Square from the White House, supported Republicans almost exclusively in congressional elections until a shakeup last year when top management grew weary of Trump and his administration’s trade wars. unpredictable.
Last year, the House backed 23 first-year Democrats, including 18 who voted for a minimum wage of $ 15, and 29 first-year Republicans, compared to just seven Democrats and 191 Republicans in the previous election cycle.
“We are open to discussing raising the minimum wage,” said Glenn Spencer, the chamber’s senior vice president for employment policy. “The question is, are there enough Democrats who are willing to strike a deal that results in an increase in the minimum wage? Or will progressives keep their $ 15 for political reasons and end up with zero?”
Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans support raising the minimum wage, including a strong contingent of Republicans. A growing number of major cities and states have set their own minimum wages at $ 15.
Last year, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the referendum, voting 61 percent to 39 percent to raise the state’s minimum wage to $ 15, even when they voted for Trump. And Arkansas, a deeply conservative and relatively low-income state, has set its minimum at $ 11.
Some business and Republican groups see the writing on the wall and were quick to get ahead of it.
The National Federation of Independent Business has taken a tougher rhetorical line against minimum wage increases than the Chamber of Commerce or the Business Roundtable, for example, though all have emphasized the need to isolate small businesses.
“Small businesses are much less likely than larger ones to have cash reserves or profit margins to absorb rising labor costs,” wrote Kevin Kuhlman, vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business, in a letter to lawmakers on Monday. last month.
Democrats have also been sensitive to that issue. When his minimum wage measure was removed from the Covid-19 relief bill, Sanders floated an idea to impose tax penalties on large businesses that pay less than $ 15 an hour and offer tax incentives for small businesses that pay more.
The plan was abandoned and a separate amendment to raise the salary to $ 15 failed in the Senate on Friday, with eight Democrats voting against it.
With Manchin opposed to $ 15, Democrats may have to try to find a compromise, much to the chagrin of those on the left.
“I think for Democrats settling for less than $ 15 is political suicide, given the moment,” said Joseph Geevarghese, who used to run the Fight for $ 15 campaign and is now the CEO of Our Revolution, an aligned progressive activist group. with Sanders.
The negotiations could be the first real test of whether business interests are really interested in turning a new sheet with the new administration. They may need to put some pressure on Republican senators to get the necessary 60 votes.
Meanwhile, labor activists like Sara Fearrington, a waitress at Waffle House in Durham, North Carolina, say they will continue to fight for higher pay.
“We are going to continue on strike, we are going to continue organizing and we are going to keep coming to the table until we get it,” he said.