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Indicator: Workers Win Minimum Wage Increases

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With the federal minimum wage stagnating since 1997, the states are stepping in to bring wages up. Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin became the latest states to raise their minimum wages this year, bringing to 17 the number of states with minimums higher than the federal rate. Hawaii and Maryland may follow soon; their legislatures also passed raises this year.

Five states now raise their minimum wages automatically with inflation. Last fall, Florida and Nevada voters overwhelmingly voted to join Oregon and Washington in indexing the minimum wage to inflation (see YES! Spring 2005), while Vermont's legislature in June passed a bill to do the same.

Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage has fallen to 40 percent of its 1968 value.

 In March, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced an amendment to the federal bankruptcy bill that would have raised the federal minimum, but it was stripped from the final bill.

Cities are also taking action to raise wages. According to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), 130 municipalities have passed living wage laws raising pay rates to as high as $13 an hour for employees of firms that contract with the cities. In Chicago, in the wake of debates over Wal-Mart's push to enter the city, Alderman Joe Moore is sponsoring a “Big-Box Living Wage” ordinance that requires chain stores like Wal-Mart to pay workers $10 an hour and provide benefits.

Although voters across the political spectrum have shown support for higher minimum wages, raises face hurdles. Both Maryland's and California's Republican governors vetoed bills raising state minimums. In Maryland, the legislature had passed the measure with a majority large enough to override the governor's veto, but as of press time has yet to do so. In California, activists are working to put a minimum wage initiative on the fall ballot. In Wisconsin, the law raising the minimum passed the Republican-controlled legislature only after a measure was included prohibiting higher local-level minimums, such as those in effect in Madison and Milwaukee.

—Carolyn McConnell

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