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Introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and in the House by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the bill would go far beyond the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and make it easier for federal workers to join a union. (Photo: AP)

Aiming to Lift 'Starvation Wage,' Progressive Lawmakers Push for $15 Nationwide

Sanders and Congressional Progressive Caucus introduce new legislation before crowd of striking federal workers

Deirdre Fulton

"We are here today to send a very loud and a very clear message to the United States Congress, the President of the United States, and corporate America," Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders bellowed before a crowd of striking low-wage workers in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. "In the richest country on the face of the earth, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty."

And it was with that message and those federal contract workers in mind that Sen. Sanders (I-Vt.), along with his progressive counterparts in the U.S House, on Tuesday introduced a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"In the year 2015, a job has got to lift workers out of poverty, not keep them in it," Sanders said at a rally of striking federal contract workers near the Russell Senate Building in the nation's capital. "The $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage is a starvation wage. It has got to be increased to a living wage."

The Pay Workers a Living Wage Act would phase in a $15 minimum wage nationwide by 2020 over 5 steps, increasing to $9 in 2016, $10.50 in 2017, $12.00 in 2018, $13.50 in 2019, and $15 in '20. After that, the minimum wage would be indexed to the median hourly wage.

Progressive Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) are among the members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who introduced companion legislation in the House.

"When I'm on picket lines around the country, people tell me they’re protesting because they’re working harder than ever and still can't make ends meet," Ellison said in a statement. "The Progressive Caucus stands in solidarity with the working Americans putting in longer hours and seeing smaller paychecks. In the richest nation in the world, no business should be able to pay so little their workers are forced to find second and third jobs to feed their kids."

According to a press statement from Sanders, if the minimum wage had kept up with productivity and inflation since 1968, it would be more than $26 an hour today.

Meanwhile, the legislation would gradually eliminate the practice of paying tipped workers a different, lower wage. In his speech on Wednesday, Sanders described that wage as "a loophole that allows employers to pay tipped workers a shamefully low $2.13 an hour."

Boosting the federal minimum wage, which has not been done since 2009, would directly benefit 62 million workers who currently make less than $15 an hour, including over half of African-American workers and close to 60 percent of Latino workers, the bill's backers say. They cite a January 2015 poll showing that 63 percent of Americans support a $15 minimum wage.

As The Hill notes, Sanders' bill is unlikely to get a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate.

"A bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour has languished in the House for years," Al Jazeera America's Ned Resnikoff explains, meaning "[t]he odds are not in favor of legislation calling for an even bigger increase."

However, Resnikoff continues, "the $15 wage proposal gives progressive organizations and their allies in Congress a totem around which to rally. The bill is a direct challenge to other Democratic officials who have yet to support a significant wage increase—particularly Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in the party’s 2016 presidential primary."

What's more, as Sanders pointed out: "The good news is that cities and states are not waiting for Congress to act." The campaign for a $15 minimum wage has won local victories in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle, among other places.

In a major win on this front, the New York State Wage Board on Wednesday recommended a phase in of $15 an hour for fast-food workers in New York City by 2018 and all of New York state by 2021.

Among the federal contract workers cheering on the minimum wage bill on Wednesday was Sontia Bailey, who wrote about her plight in the Guardian on Tuesday.

"Even though I work full-time at the US Capitol, I only earn $10.59 an hour," she wrote. "Because the federal contractor that operates the cafe pays me so little, I had to pick-up a second job at KFC to make ends meet. It may be hard to believe, but Colonel Sanders actually pays me more than Uncle Sam does: I make $11 an hour at my fast food job."

Bailey continued:

I want senators to know that real problem facing workers is that despite putting in long hours, we can’t manage to get ahead and stay ahead. The real problem we face is low-pay.

If I made a living wage at the US Capitol, I would not have needed to get a second job and stretch myself to the breaking point. If I just had one good-paying job, I would be a new mother today.

Ahead of Wednesday's rally, a group of more than 200 economists and scholars released a letter endorsing the legislation.

"In short, raising the federal minimum to $15 an hour by 2020 will be an effective means of improving living standards for low-wage workers and their families and will help stabilize the economy," wrote the experts, who include academic and author Frances Fox Piven and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "The costs to other groups in society," they added, "will be modest and readily absorbed."

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