Groups rally for increased minimum wage
"One Pittsburgh" crosses Wood Street as it makes its way up Forbes Avenue for a National Day of Action march to raise the minimum wage.
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Arthur Rawls, 51, has never earned as much as $10 an hour.
Now the Navy veteran makes $8.48 an hour, or about $13,000 a year, clocking in 30 hours a week at a clothing store Downtown.
"They aren't giving full-time, so I try to cut hair on the side," he said. "I try to do the best I can, but by the grace of God is the only way I'm making it.
"If I got sick or missed a day's work, I would be up under a bridge today trying to make ends meet."
Mr. Rawls is among 28 million Americans who would see their wallets fatten if a bill to raise minimum wage to $9.80 an hour in 2014 is passed by Congress, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington D.C.
As groups demonstrated all over the country on "National Day of Action" to raise the minimum wage Tuesday, Mr. Rawls joined citizens, community groups, and activists at a rally in Market Square.
"Why does the government have to tell corporations you can't pay people this low?" said Dan Palermo, a 30-year-old janitor and member of the Service Employees International Union.
The group swelled to about 150 and marched along wet streets to the City-County Building shouting, "The rich got theirs, ours never arrived, can't make a living on $7.25," and other chants.
A news conference held outside City Council chambers was followed by a council meeting where Councilman Bill Peduto spoke in favor of raising wages and the council passed a resolution to support the federal bill.
"When minimum wage doesn't rise at the same rate as inflation, we're actually making the problem worse," Mr. Peduto said.
The minimum wage of $1.60 in 1968 would equate to $10.55 today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator. The federal bill would bind wages to inflation.
"We're pretty aware that a resolution only holds as much weight as the intention of those that want it passed," said Kyndall Mason of One Pittsburgh, a community group that helped organize the event. "The next step for us is to keep the pressure on city council to keep their commitment."
Later Councilman Ricky Burgess introduced legislation unrelated to the protest that would resurrect a local minimum wage for city employees and workers employed by city vendors.
The exact rate is based on a formula and would be set by the city controller's office. However, the councilman's office estimated that the rate would be at least $11.50 per hour.
The last time Congress passed legislation to increase minimum wage was in 2007. The hikes topped out at $7.25 in 2009 and haven't increased nationally or in Pennsylvania since.
The federal bill has ignited a contentious debate among economists on how a minimum wage boost will impact the economy.
Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, explained that part of the problem is that economic theory and empirical research don't agree.
"The theories argue that an increase in the minimum wage would generate unemployment, that it would drive up costs for employers and employers and would lay people off," he said.
But studies in the last 20 years have suggested otherwise.
"When the minimum wage went up, it didn't result in a loss of employment," he said. "There are a lot of different mechanisms for a minimum wage increase to be absorbed."
Wage increases among low-income workers are likely spent and funneled back into the economy, he said. Evidence also suggests productivity increases when people are paid more.
"When wages rise, people work harder," he said. "It ends up compensating the employer for the increase in wages."
Speakers on Tuesday argued the economy is in peril because low-wage workers have nothing to spend. Others pressed the gulf between CEO and employee pay.
" ... [God] created enough for everyone," said the Rev. David Thornton, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District. "But there's a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots."
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For a video report, visit post-gazette.com.
First Published July 25, 2012 12:00 am