In 2008, Barack Obama pledged to raise the minimum wage every year once elected, but the hourly rate of $7.25 hasn’t increased since 2007. Low-wage workers now make far less than they did four decades ago. Last week Illinois Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. introduced the Catching Up to 1968 Act of 2012. It draws its name from the idea that the federal minimum wage would be $10.55 an hour now if it had kept up with inflation over the past 40 years. While the bill has about 20 co-sponsors so far, President Obama has yet to endorse it. We speak to longtime consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader. "The U.S.’s federal minimum wage is lower than all Western countries," Nader says. "This is basically an issue that reflects the craven, cruel nature of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, but it also reflects the caution, the cowardliness, the betrayal of the Democratic Party of its core constituency." [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the economy. On Thursday, presidential rivals, Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, gave major addresses in Ohio. Both blamed the slow economic recovery on each other’s parties. Romney spoke first in Cincinnati.
MITT ROMNEY: He is going to be a person of eloquence as he describes his plans for making the economy better. But don’t forget, he’s been president for three-and-a-half years. And talk is cheap. Action speaks very loud. And if you want to see the results of his economic policies, look around Ohio, look around the country, and you’ll see that a lot of people are hurting, a lot of people have had some real tough times.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Meanwhile, at a rally in Cleveland, President Obama acknowledged the slow economic recovery. He cast his re-election battle with Mitt Romney as a clash between contrasting philosophies on how to fix it.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The debate in this election is not about whether we need to grow faster or whether we need to create more jobs or whether we need to pay down our debt. Of course the economy isn’t where it needs to be. Of course we have a lot more work to do. Everybody knows that. The debate in this election is about how we grow faster and how we create more jobs and how we pay down our debt. That’s the question facing the American voter.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Concerns about the troubled economy have helped push Obama’s approval ratings to their lowest level since January. But a new Gallup poll finds that two-thirds of Americans blame his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, for the downturn.
AMY GOODMAN: Many economists say more jobs could be created by generating more consumer demand. Well, a new bill introduced by Illinois Democratic Congressmember Jesse Jackson Jr. aims to do that by increasing minimum wage for the first time since 2007. He says the increase could generate tens of billions of dollars in spending by poor families and workers almost immediately. Congressmember Jackson recently introduced the Catching Up to 1968 Act of 2012. It draws its name from the idea that the federal minimum wage would be $10.55 an hour now if it had kept up with inflation over the last 40 years. Instead, it’s $7.25.
While the bill has about 20 co-sponsors, so far President Obama has yet to endorse it despite a campaign promise he made in 2008. His poverty agenda included a pledge to, quote, "raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2011 [so that] full-time workers can earn a living wage that allows them to raise their families and pay for basic needs such as food, transportation, and housing."
One prominent supporter of increasing the minimum wage has been longtime consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader. He’s joining us now from Washington, D.C. His latest book is Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism: Build it Together to Win.
Ralph Nader, welcome back to Democracy Now! Start off by talking about the minimum wage bill that Congressmember Jackson has put forward and what President Obama is doing about it.
RALPH NADER: Well, President Obama has done nothing since he promised in 2008 to go to $9.50 by 2011, as you pointed out. This is a problem of the Democratic Party, Amy. The case for the minimum wage going to $10 is overwhelming. That’s why Jesse Jackson called it "Catching Up with 1968." That’s when the economy was half the size of it is today and half the worker productivity as today. So, if you look at the political scene, all the stars are aligned for the Democratic Party to take the lead and push this through Congress in an election year. For example, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have been on the record of saying they want to—wanted a minimum wage keeping up with inflation. That would break the grip of McConnell, Senator McConnell, and Speaker Boehner over 100 percent of their Republicans and split the ranks. Furthermore, all these large membership groups like the AFL-CIO and the NAACP and La Raza, Center for Council on Budget Priorities [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities], all of them and many more, are for an increase in the minimum wage. This is the signal issue of the old Democratic Party, when the minimum started in 1938 under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the Democratic Party has become a party of caution, cash and co-optation. And so, they don’t even know a winning humanitarian, moral and political issue if it was put on their desk.
Well, Jesse Jackson Jr. has broken ranks from the lethargy on Capitol Hill. He has about 20 good progressives in the House supporting him. And this is jolting what everybody’s been waiting for. The AFL has been waiting for George Miller, a congressman, a senior congressman from San Francisco. The White House apparently is waiting for George Miller. Nancy Pelosi is waiting for George Miller. So, in a few days, George Miller, after three-and-a-half years of doing nothing, is going to put in a bill for a three-year stage, going to $9.80 by 2014. That is not a political winner. If you go from seven and a quarter and catch up with 1968 by taking it to $10, that’s 30 million workers that you can appeal to—30 million workers. And that doesn’t count the tipping of restaurant workers and fast-food workers, who are still at $2.55 an hour plus tips. Who knows what they are in terms of getting even to today’s federal minimum wage? The U.S.’s federal minimum wage is lower than all Western countries. Ontario in Canada has a minimum wage of $10.25.
And another star that’s allied, this. They usually cater to the business community. When there’s a minimum wage increase in the past, they say, "Well, let’s give them a tax break." Well, they’ve already given, under Obama, 17 small business tax breaks. And, of course, we all know that Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have got the tax system pretty well gamed. So here we have this gross inequity where workers in Wal-Mart are making $8, $9, $10 an hour before deductions, with hardly any health insurance, and their boss, the CEO of Wal-Mart, is making $11,000 an hour, eight hours a day. So you can see it’s a great, powerful, fair-play political message if the Democrats would rise up.
But I think we have to have another slogan here: "30 million American workers arise. You have nothing to lose but some of your debt." And we have a website to mobilize these workers. It’s a simple one: timeforaraise.org, timeforaraise.org.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Ralph?
RALPH NADER: And H.R.5901 of—Jesse Jackson’s bill, H.R.5901, will do it. So call the White House. Ask for Gene Sperling. He’s the economic adviser to Mr. Obama. And call your members. This thing can really roll, especially if the Occupy movement begins to surround the local congressional districts on this issue.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ralph, I want to ask you about Mitt Romney’s views on raising the minimum wage. This is what he said in January when approached on the campaign trail.
MITT ROMNEY: My view has been to allow the minimum wage to rise with the CPI or with another index, so that it adjusts automatically over time.
REPORTER: So you’d support that as president?
MITT ROMNEY: I already indicated that when I was governor of Massachusetts that that was my view.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Republican candidate Mitt Romney. He also supported raising the minimum wage in 2002 when he was running for governor. But speaking on CNBC in March, Romney described how he vetoed such a raise in 2006.
MITT ROMNEY: Well, actually, when I was governor, the legislature passed a law raising the minimum wage. I vetoed it, and I said, "Look, the way to deal with the minimum wage is this. On a regular basis," I said in the proposal I made, "every two years, we should look at the minimum wage. We should look at what’s happened to inflation. We should also look at the jobs level throughout the country, unemployment rate, competitive rates in other states—or in this case, other nations." So, certainly the level of inflation is something you should look at, and you should identify what’s the right way to keep America competitive.
LAWRENCE KUDLOW: In that case, there’s no inflation, or at least very minimal inflation so far.
MITT ROMNEY: So, right. Yeah, so—so that would tell you that right now there’s probably not a need to raise the minimum wage. What I can tell you is, had one indexed the minimum wage back to, let’s say, 1990, the minimum wage would be lower now than it actually is. Democrats make big hay of this every—every few years — "Oh, we’re going to raise the minimum wage" — and get a lot of hoopla for it. Frankly, the right way to process it is to look at the minimum wage, look at how unemployment rates are, make adjustments as time goes on based upon our need to compete, the need of the job market, and, of course, what’s happened to inflation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, Ralph, is he for it or against raising the minimum wage?
RALPH NADER: He doesn’t know where he is. You know, he’s—historically, he’s been for supporting the minimum wage keeping up with inflation. He’s waffling now. After all, his wife only drives two Cadillacs, he’s only worth over $200 million. This is the plutocrat speaking to 30 million workers who are working on a minimum wage that’s the lowest in the Western world. I might add, there are Republicans against that position. This minimum wage keeping up with inflation comes in at 70 percent in the polls, historically. Seventy percent means that a lot of Republican workers in Wal-Mart and McDonald’s and others are not going to say, "Oh, we’re Republicans. We don’t want to go from seven and a quarter or seven and a half to $10." This is a winning issue. In 2004, there was a $1 minimum wage increase on the ballot. There was no money by the promoters to go on TV. Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, all these low-wage big chains plastered TV against it, and they lost. It came in 70 percent winning for the minimum wage increase in Florida.
So, this is basically an issue that reflects the craven, cruel nature of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, but it also reflects the caution, the cowardliness, the betrayal of the Democratic Party of its core constituency. Historically, this would be a no-brainer. This would be on the platform. And Senator Harkin introduces a modest bill in March. Look how late in the season. And George Miller in the House hasn’t introduced it yet. And he comes from a progressive San Francisco Bay Area district. So, this minimum wage issue is the Rorschach test for our two-party tyranny. If they can’t even pick up on that and increase consumer demand in a recessionary economy, and be backed up by the chief economic adviser to Obama, Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, who’s the main researcher, when he was at Princeton, disproving that an increase in the minimum wage costs jobs—it increases jobs. It increases sales. A lot of small businesses know that, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for Women, which is supporting a minimum-wage increase in New York state, which is also stuck at seven and a quarter. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce for Women.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, we’re going to break and come back to this discussion. Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, former presidential candidate. His latest book is called Getting Steamed to Overcome Corporatism: Build it Together to Win. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.