NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — Taking his campaign for a higher federal minimum wage on the road Wednesday, President Barack Obama told 3,000 students and audience members at Central Connecticut State University that “it is time to give America a raise.”
“It’s not bad business to do right by your workers, it’s good business,” Obama said to applause, which punctuated the 30-minute, campaign-style address. “It’s just common sense.”
On the heels of the unveiling of a 2015 budget proposal that declared “opportunity” the focal point of his agenda, Obama said a wage hike is a matter of basic fairness and common sense. Letting wages stagnate as prices continue to rise amounts to a pay cut, Obama said.
He estimated that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would lift wages for nearly 28 million people across the country — 200,000 in Connecticut alone. At the same time, it would boost business, Obama said. He described a “virtuous cycle” in which better-compensated workers spend more money, increasing the profits of businesses and thus allowing them to hire more workers.
Where the federal minimum wage currently stands — at $7.25 an hour — too many Americans are working 40-hour weeks only to raise their families in poverty, Obama said.
“Nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty,” Obama said. “That violates a basic sense of who we are.”
Obama was joined on stage by U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and four progressive New England governors, all of whom have pushed for a higher minimum wage within their states: Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Peter Shumlin of Vermont. Obama praised their efforts and said it is incumbent on states and localities — in addition to businesses — to push for higher wages. He singled out Gap and Costco as two “profitable companies” that have boosted productivity by increasing their workers’ wages.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have pressed for higher statewide minimum wage requirements. The state of Washington currently leads the pack with a $9.32-an-hour minimum. Connecticut’s wage floor is slated to rise to $9 an hour in 2015 and could go as high as $10.10 by 2017 if Malloy’s latest proposal gains the approval of the General Assembly. The Labor and Public Employees Committee passed the measure on Tuesday on a party-line vote.
Obama told the crowd he has sought means to increase wages federally despite a recalcitrant U.S. Congress. By executive order, Obama raised the minimum wage last month for federal workers on new contracts to $10.10 beginning in 2015. Further changes require legislative cooperation, he said, urging Congress to pass a bill sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Representative George Miller of California to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 and index the figure to the rate of inflation.
“If we’re going to finish the job, Congress has to get on board,” Obama said. He criticized congressional Republicans for placing partisanship over popular opinion: “Maybe I should say I oppose raising the minimum wage and they’d be for it.”
Obama also cited a Quinnipiac University poll indicating that three quarters of voters support boosting the minimum wage.
Popular support notwithstanding, White House aides and Congressional Democrats said the best way to beat back the perception that Democrats are using the minimum wage as an electoral wedge issue is to pass the increase long before the midterm elections. “Pass it right now,” Gene Sperling, director of the said on a conference call with reporters. “If people don’t think it should be a political issue, pass it quickly, pass it early.”
A $10.10 minimum wage would affect 21.4 percent of workers, Sperling added, up from the five percent currently earning the $7.25 minimum. He parried Republican claims of job loss by saying the increase would be salutary for economic demand.
Malloy, who introduced the president at CCSU on Wednesday, has emerged as a national spokesman in the minimum wage debate following his disagreement with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal outside the White House last month.
When Jindal said Obama’s economic agenda represented the “white flag of surrender,” Malloy came to the president’s defense.
“As I look around this room, I don’t see anyone waiving a white flag. Bobby Jindal didn’t make it to Connecticut,” Malloy said Wednesday to a burst of applause. “I absolutely believe, as you do, that if you work 40 hours a week, you should not be living in poverty in Connecticut or in any other state.”
Not all Connecticut politicians in the audience Wednesday agreed with Obama’s economic reasoning. New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart said she was “honored” to host the president but called a bump in the minimum wage a “quick fix” and an unsustainable solution to poverty, a problem she said she is familiar with addressing in post-industrial town.
Before his remarks at CCSU, Obama dined at Café Beauregard. He ordered a Korean beef sandwich and chili.
“We’re very proud of these governors. And with that, let me eat,” Obama told media before sitting down for lunch.