Create a Labor Day With Meaning: Minimum Wage Matters

— by Stuart Appelbaum

It’s not that often when Labor Day and Rosh Hashana fall so close together on the calendar. This year, there’s one pressing Labor Day issue that should concern the entire Jewish community of the United States — the pitiful state of the federal minimum wage.

It’s not a secret that the federal minimum wage isn’t a living wage. At $7.25 an hour, today’s full-time minimum wage worker makes just $15,080 a year. Even with two people working minimum wage jobs, the income is hovering at the poverty level — if they are even lucky enough to have full-time jobs.

More after the jump including this year’s Presidential Labor Day Proclamation.
Moreover, the makeup of minimum wage workers has changed. James Surowiecki, writing in The New Yorker, noted that:

a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones has shown [that] low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not … to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families.

History of the federal minimum wage under the 1938 act in nominal dollars (dark purple) and adjusted for inflation (light purple). (Source: Nominal wages from the Department of Labor. Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The purchasing power of minimum wage plummeted in the 1980s, when the Federal rate did not increase from January 1981 to April 1990. Six years ago, in 2007, Congress raised the Federal minimum wage by $2.10 per hour — to $7.25 per hour — as a first step toward restoring its historical value. But for the minimum wage to have the same purchasing power it had back in 1968, it would have to be more than $10 per hour now.

Jews across the United States should remember the situation confronting so many of our ancestors as they came to this country where all they could earn were poverty wages in the garment trades and other sectors.

The challenges confronting those who earn the minimum wage today are no less daunting. They are the workers who care for our elderly parents, wash our cars, pick our produce, clean our offices, and work at fast food restaurants. The vast majority of them work multiple minimum wage jobs to support their families; they are still struggling. They are faced with terrible choices, over which bills to pay every month — rent or heat, groceries or medicine that none among us should be forced to make.

Presidential Proclamation — Labor Day, 2013

On September 5, 1882, in what is thought to be the first Labor Day event, thousands of working Americans gathered to march in a New York City parade. In the 131 years since, America has called on our workers time and again — to raise and connect our cities; to feed, heal, and educate our Nation; to forge the latest technological revolution. On Labor Day, we celebrate these enduring contributions and honor all the men and women who make up the world’s greatest workforce.

America is what it is today because workers began to organize — to demand fair pay, decent hours, safe working conditions, and the dignity of a secure retirement. Through decades upon decades of struggle, they won many of the rights and benefits we too often take for granted today, from the 40-hour work week and minimum wage to safety standards, workers’ compensation, and health insurance. These basic protections allowed the middle class to flourish. They formed the basis of the American dream and offered a better life to anyone willing to work for it.

Yet over the past decades, that promise began to erode. People were working harder for less, and good jobs became more difficult to find. My Administration remains committed to restoring the basic bargain at the heart of the American story. We are bringing good jobs back to the United States. We are expanding programs that train workers in tomorrow’s industries, and we eliminated tax breaks that benefited the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class. In the years to come, I will continue to support collective bargaining rights that strengthen the middle class and give voice to workers across our Nation. And I will keep pushing for a higher minimum wage — because in America, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.

Thanks to the grit and resilience of the American worker, we have cleared away the rubble of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Now is the time to reward that hard work. Today, as America celebrates working people everywhere, we unite behind good jobs in growing industries, and we strengthen our resolve to rebuild our economy on a stronger foundation.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim September 2, 2013, as Labor Day. I call upon all public officials and people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that honor the contributions and resilience of working Americans.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this thirtieth day of August, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.


A comprehensive study by the Economic Policy Institute points out the benefits of raising the minimum wage:

Increasing the Federal minimum wage to $10.10 by July 1, 2015, would raise the wages of about 30 million workers, who would receive over $51 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period.

Across the phase-in period of the minimum-wage increase, GDP would increase by roughly $32.6 billion, resulting in the creation of approximately 140,000 net new jobs (and 284,000 job years) over that period.

It would not — as many conservatives claim — kill jobs. Moreover, it would be an important first step in closing the widening income gap.

So we need to raise the Federal minimum wage. Yet, much of the business sector and its allies continue to stymie even modest attempts to lift minimum wage workers out of poverty.

Why? Essentially, because they can — and that fact makes even some conservatives uneasy. Two years ago, former Smith Barney director Desmond Lachman told The New York Times:

Corporations are taking huge advantage of the slack in the labor market — they are in a very strong position and workers are in a very weak position. They are using that bargaining power to cut benefits and wages, and to shorten hours.

Of course not all the blame for low-wage workers lies with the businesses that employ them. The consuming public has a role in it as well. Too often, we fail to make the link between low prices and widespread poverty.

Some states, frustrated at the inability of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, have raised the minimum wage locally. But this needs to be done nationally, and now.

The Torah proclaims, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut. 16:20) If we are to provide a measure of justice where it counts to the least-well paid among us, we have to all do our part to support an increase in the federal minimum wage.

It’s the right and just thing to do.

We must partner with others to ensure that this happens. We need to talk about it with our friends, families and neighbors. We in the Jewish Labor Committee are proud to be part of this campaign, and we encourage you to do so as well. In the Greater Philadelphia area, a good start would be to contact Michael Hersch, the Philadelphia Regional Director of the Jewish Labor Committee, via phone at 215-587-6822 (cell: 215-668-5454), or via email at [email protected].

Stuart Appelbaum is president of the Jewish Labor Committee and president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW.



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