A policy fissure is quickly opening in the Democratic primary over the minimum wage, with Hillary Clinton’s two main challengers taking advantage of her hesitancy to embrace the issue.
Activists and labor unions have been pushing national Democrats to more than double the current federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York city have already adopted the measure locally. President Obama and many Democrats in Congress support a more moderate $10.10 an hour wage level.
On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced a bill in the Senate to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and rallied with about 200 low-wage federal contract workers, most of whom where black and Latin, outside the Capitol building. “I think that if you work 40 hours a week, you have a right not to be living in poverty,” said Sanders. The current current $7.25 national rate is “starvation wage,” he added.
But so far front-runner HIllary Clinton has taken a more nuanced position.
Last month, Clinton made a surprise phone call into a group of fast food workers in Detroit who are fighting for a $15 minimum wage. Clinton said she supported their effort and wanted to be their “champion,” but her campaign clarified that she does not yet support the full federal wage increase.
In New Hampshire last week, Clinton told reporters she supports the local fights for a $15 minimum wage, but is not yet sure about a national level. “I support the local efforts,” Clinton said. “Democratic supporters of increasing the minimum wage are trying to debate and determine what’s the national floor is, because there are different economic environments. And what you can do in L.A. or in New York may not work in other places.”
In that answer, her rivals pounce.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley – also a Democratic candidate for president – quickly put out a statement. “I strongly support the national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, because it will lift millions of families out of poverty and create better customers for American businesses,” he said. “Some people will say this is hard to do. And it will be. But leadership is about forging public consensus – not following it.”
Sanders, as the only Democratic member of Congress running for president, was able to introduce a bill to raise the wage to $15 an hour, though his staff says it was in the works before Clinton’s comments.
“While other people talk about what they’d like to do, Sen. Sanders is continuing to actually lay out a very detailed roadmap for getting us there,” said Sanders spokesperson Vincent Morris.
Asked Wednesday if Clinton should support his $15 minimum wage bill, Sanders said only, “I support $15 an hour, she’ll do what she wants.”
Sanders was joined by fellow travelers from the House, including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-Chairman Keith Ellison. “I think that she will see the light, hopefully sooner rather than later,” Ellison said when asked by msnbc about Clinton’s stance on the minimum wage. “The pressure is on, but it’s sad that it’s a pressure thing.”