Bernard Brommer: In minimum-wage debate, some myths just won’t go away

mug-brommer-webLegislation has been introduced that would provide a much needed increase in the minimum wage after many years of no action. The principal parties and the arguments have remained essentially the same since the inception of minimum-wage laws many decades ago.

As we have learned over time, there are many myths that surround the debate, including many offered by opponents in an attempt to instill fear among workers and lawmakers. The myths remain essentially unchanged from the very beginning of the fight to establish the minimum wage in our nation. As happens so often in the economic and political arena, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The myths generally involve threatened job losses. Opponents claim that existing jobs will disappear and new jobs will not be created. While there may be a limited number of employers who elect to forgo creating a new job or even abolishing an existing position because of an increase in the minimum wage, there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that loss of actual or potential employment will be significant.

Opponents also claim the minimum wage exists primarily for new entrants into the work force, or for those who seek to gain some insight into the world of work, or those who are only working to gain a little spending money to squander on easy living at the malt shop or trinkets at the mall. This pig doesn’t fly either due to evidence that identifies significant numbers of workers who are attempting to support their families on a minimum wage. Try being the breadwinner and making ends meet at poverty-level income.

There are experts and economists of every stripe who have pontificated on the central ingredients of the minimum-wage debate. There is a voluminous body of work surrounding the minimum wage and its impact on the economy. Much of the evidence debunks the myths and focuses on the positive effects of an increase in the minimum wage.

Referencing the positive effects of the minimum wage requires recognition of the fact that increased wages result in increased spending. There is no denying that members of the workforce who earn the minimum wage will spend any increase on essential consumer items. Why, then, do retailers represented by their Retail Federation scramble to be first in line to oppose the minimum wage? Why wouldn’t they focus on the growing business and revenue generated by an increase in the minimum wage? It’s one of the many ironies of the minimum-wage debate.

In fact, one can come to the conclusion that the debate around increasing the minimum wage isn’t really about wages at all. What is really at the core of this fight is vehement opposition to the idea that our government is taking action on behalf of the working poor. This resentment is not new. Government is OK when it can be used and manipulated to advance the interests of the rich and powerful, but it should remain neutral and stay out of the marketplace when the working poor, the middle class and the labor movement are involved.

The struggle involving the creation of a measure of fairness and economic justice for human labor and the greed so inherent in our world today will continue. Action to increase the minimum wage is a small step in leveling the playing field and adding to the dignity and respect for those workers who labor for a measure of respect, recognition and reward.

– Bernard Brommer is a past president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, the state’s largest federation of labor unions.

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