Minimum wage rally

Protesters march on State Street in Madison for a higher minimum wage, which many Democrats and unions are touting in the fall election, hoping the issue resonates with voters. 

MILWAUKEE — When it was created in 1938, the federal minimum wage was a quintessentially American promise: Work hard and you’ll have enough money to put food on your table, a roof over your head and maybe put a little bit leftover aside for a rainy day.

And for decades the federal minimum wage ensured that Wisconsinites received the fair wage they deserved for their hard work, whether it was a dairy farmer in Marathon or a home health care aide in Milwaukee. Millions of Americans have lifted themselves and their families into the middle class thanks to the minimum wage job and a some elbow grease.

But today the promise of the minimum wage has faded as Republicans — including U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh—resist any effort to increase it. At $7.25 an hour the federal minimum wage is no longer enough to put food on the table, much less provide a bridge to the middle class.

A single mother working 40 hours a week at a minimum wage makes around $15,000 a year, which is below the federal government’s poverty line. But that doesn’t trouble Sen. Johnson. He’s on record opposing the very idea of a federal minimum wage and has worked with his ultra-Republican colleagues in Washington to block any effort to raise it. Time after time, Sen. Johnson has made clear that he’s not interested in the plight of the millions of working class Wisconsinites who are struggling to get by.

People such as Darlene Mason. Darlene made around $9 an hour as a home health care worker. But when her husband fell ill with cancer, she didn’t make enough money to hire help and pay the medical bills. So she was forced to quit her job because she just couldn’t afford to work for only $9 an hour. Now she struggles just to find money for the bus to get groceries, much less pay her husband’s mounting medical bills.

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And Mason is the norm, not the outlier. The minimum wage is so low that it has become government-sanctioned poverty. It allows big corporations to keep wages low and profits high, while shifting the burden to American taxpayers. A recent study by the University of California Berkeley found that low wages cost the taxpayers $153 billion a year.

Mason loves home care. She like thousands of other caretakers have been forced out of their profession due to poverty wages. This state and country now have a drastic shortage of caretakers. Meanwhile, the need only increases with the aging of our population.

You’d think with all the money the government spends to subsidize low wages, Sen. Johnson would want to raise the minimum wage. Instead the senator doesn’t even believe the federal minimum wage should exist. He’s too beholden to the corporate CEOs that finance his campaign. The same CEOs have enriched themselves on backs of low-wage workers.

Johnson’s position reeks of hypocrisy. As a senator, he makes $174,000 a year, but he continues to oppose a wage hike that would help working-class Americans make $30,000 a year. For those keeping track, the Senate worked 133 days last year. Sen. Johnson made more than $1,308 a day last year, and that’s on top of the $10 million golden parachute he got from his former company. Truth is, Sen. Johnson is out of touch with the struggle of working-class Americans.

Wisconsinites deserve a senator who understands that the working and middle class need a raise. Someone who understands that not everyone is lucky enough to have a senator’s salary and a $10 million golden parachute. Russ Feingold, who is challenging Johnson in the fall election, has pledged to fight to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He’s pledged to fight for working-class Wisconsinites, and come this fall we’ll be fighting for him.

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Palmer, a registered nurse in Milwaukee, is president of SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, a service employees union: www.seiuhcwi.org.