Effort focused on pushing state Senate to go higher
Back in August, under a pavilion at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in 95-degree heat, supporters of increasing the minimum wage in Minnesota kicked off what would soon become a very public campaign.
Before then, talk of raising the state’s minimum wage of $6.15 per hour — one of the lowest rates in the nation — was mostly confined to the halls of the state Capitol, where differing House and Senate bills were considered last session but failed to yield any agreement by the time the legislative clock ran out. The House bill set an increase from $6.15 to $9.50 per hour, while the Senate offered a more modest proposal to increase the minimum wage to $7.75 per hour. Gov. Mark Dayton, alongside House Democrats and union members, thought the interim would be a good time to publicly pressure the Senate to move their way on minimum wage next session.
“I’ve been for what I call a living wage since my first campaign for the U.S. Senate,” Dayton told the crowd gathered at the state fair. “To me, this is as conservative of a principle as they get. Let’s get people off of the need of government assistance and let’s let them earn what they deserve and earn what they should in the workplace and we will have a stronger economy.”
Since that time, minimum wage supporters have come out in full force trying to sway the Senate. The AFL-CIO launched an effort with other unions, advocacy groups like Take Action Minnesota, Working America-Minnesota and several religious organizations to push the issue across the state. They collected more than 7,000 pro-minimum wage post cards at the state fair that will be delivered to senators.
The group recently held its first organized Senate district door-knocks in Maplewood and New Hope. Calls to senators will be coming shortly, and the union has put out a flyer picturing Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and suggesting that minimum wage supporters call his office and encourage him to back the House position.
“We are going full speed ahead,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Chris Shields. “There is a lot of momentum. The biggest question we’ve gotten so far is, ‘Can we go higher?’”
Supporters are encouraged by trends
Union groups are also raising money with an eye toward doing minimum wage polling and paid advertisements, said Bernie Hesse, organizer with the UFCW Local 1189. “Whatever we have to spend on this [campaign means] less for House elections and Senate elections down the road, so why don’t we figure this out before session starts?” Hesse said.
Shields is encouraged by movement in other states. In California this week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the first $10 minimum wage bill in the United States. On Jan. 1 this year, Washington state’s minimum wage went up to $9.19 per hour. “If they can do $10 in California by 2016, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to have Minnesota go to $9.50 in 2015,” Shields said. This week Dayton told a group of retired AFL-CIO board members that he’s willing to “settle” for a minimum wage increase to $9.50 per hour.
DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler has been traveling the around state this summer in conjunction with his House Select Committee on Living Wage Jobs, and minimum wage has been one of the major topics of conversation.
Winkler, who carried the minimum wage proposal last session, originally introduced a bill that would raise it to $10.55 per hour, but that number was chiseled away at in committee hearings and by floor amendments. Most states must at least meet the federal minimum wage baseline of $7.25 per hour, but some workers in Minnesota can earn as little as $5.25 from small employers. “The state of Minnesota does not want to be the public-sector Walmart,” Winkler said.
He has been critical of the Senate — and in particular Bakk, who worked for a union before coming to the Legislature — for failing to bring a stronger proposal to the table. But he thinks next session a compromise will be reached.
“I think next session Sen. Bakk is likely to take a leading position on the minimum wage and get something done,” Winkler said. “We saw in 2013, when it came time to pass bills that were tough in his caucus, he managed to get the votes. He is a strong majority leader.”
And despite public pronouncements pushing the House’s $9.50 proposal, Winkler says he expects some kind of compromise in the end, although he’s not sure what that will look like. “There are a lot of moving parts,” he said.
Concerns remain for senators,
But the proposal still raises concerns for some senators with respect to its impact on small businesses, agriculture and long-term care. And supporters of the minimum wage aren’t the only groups out campaigning in the off-session.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which strongly opposes the bill, has been sending representatives to the Living Wage Jobs hearings around the state. The Minnesota Grocers Association has been providing “in-store tours” around the state to talk about why a minimum wage increase would hurt their members.
“As an industry that starts employees with their first-time jobs, having those 16-year-olds come in and we are talking $9 and $10 an hour, that is a big jump for us,” said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the association. “That is a challenge on an industry that operates on a 1 percent profit margin. That will result in a lot of job loss. This is a big issue for our community, especially when you get into the rural areas.”
Up in Duluth, Jon Nelson has aired his concerns to Bakk about how a minimum wage increase could hit long-term care providers. Nelson works for Residential Services Incorporated, a group home company that is entirely funded by state and federal Medicaid dollars. Many of their employees who make the federal minimum wage are paid to sleep at group homes overnight in case a resident needs assistance.
“Our funding pie is really set by the state Legislature,” Nelson said. “All over the state are people who are sleeping there and are making federal minimum wage. If all of a sudden their minimum wage goes up to $9.50 and our pie of funding stays the same, all we end up doing is taking money away from staff who have to stay awake.”
Nelson, who says he supports a minimum wage increase, said he tried to work with Bakk last year to make an exception in the bill for group homes. That didn’t survive in negotiations, but Nelson says they plan to go to the Legislature next year calling for a 5 percent increase in their funding along with a minimum wage increase.
“Nursing homes got that much money last session, and we going back and are going to say we need
5 percent now,” Nelson said. “We just can’t absorb these costs.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.