$15 wage dropped from COVID relief plan in US Senate, progressives vow to continue fight

The Democratic Party’s move to insert the USD 15 per hour wage was judged by the Senate rules arbiter to not be in line with the rules. In the meanwhile pressure is on Democratic Party legislators and leadership to ensure that the wage bill is passed

February 27, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
A mobile billboard outside the Capitol building, in Washington DC on Thursday, February 25, asking people to put pressure on senators to vote in favor of a 15 dollar wage. Photo: Fight for 15/Twitter

The United States Senate Parliamentarian has handed a major setback to advocates of the USD $15 per hour minimum wage on Thursday, February 25. Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough held that the Democratic Party’s attempts to have the minimum wage hike included as part of the pandemic relief plan, which was expected to be tabled as a budget reconciliation bill in the Senate, is not in line with the rules of the chamber.

A senate parliamentarian is the nonpartisan arbiter of the standing rules of the chamber. The Democrats, who hold half the votes in the Senate proposed the inclusion of the minimum wage hike in the USD 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan as part of the annual spending bill, which is to go through a reconciliation vote. In normal circumstances a spending bill requires 60 votes out of 100-member Senate. But in cases of an emergency when a consensus can not be made in the Senate, a spending bill can be tabled as a budget reconciliation bill, which only requires a simple majority of 51 votes.

The Democrats sought to bypass the Republican opposition and their attempts to stall through a method to pass both the relief plan and the minimum wage hike. This would have been possible as the Democratic vice-president Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaker vote in the evenly divided house.

Progressives among the Democrats argued that both the relief plan and increasing the federal minimum wage to USD $15 per hour from the current level of USD 7.25 are imperative to pull millions of US citizens from poverty and pandemic-induced financial crises. Most Republicans and even some Democrats on the other hand have strongly opposed the measure. The parliamentarian’s decision to drop the measure has put the future of updating minimum wage in limbo.

The last hike in minimum wages by the US Congress happened in 2009. Trade unions and grassroots movements have been fighting for updating wage rules for more than a decade. While several major cities have passed laws gradually updating the wages to USD $15 per hour, there currently exists no jurisdiction with an effective $15 dollar wage. According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most conservative estimates, the measure will pull at least over 900,000 people out of poverty and hike incomes for over 17 million people making below the proposed minimum wage.

Despite the arbiter’s decision to drop the wage bill, trade union movements, wage hike advocates and even some progressive legislators of the Democratic Party have vowed to continue fighting for the proposed bill, and a way out from the current federal wages which many called “poverty wages”. Vice-president Harris who also chairs the Senate by default, has been asked to veto the parliamentarian’s decision and to table the minimum wage as part of the budget reconciliation bill. This would be a test of the Joe Biden administration and its commitment to their party’s most popular policy promise.

The campaign Fight for 15 tweeted that it “will not let the Senate Parliamentarian stop 32 million workers from winning a long overdue raise.” The campaign also called for politicians to “use every means” necessary to raise the wages. The same was echoed in Service Employees International Union’ (SEIU) tweet where it stated that the working class “turned out in record numbers and voted for change … No matter how they do it, Congress needs to get it done and pass a $15 minimum wage AND a rescue plan for working people. No excuses.”

Meanwhile, Senate Budget Committee chair, Bernie Sanders, is preparing for other means to enforce a USD 15 minimum wage. “In the coming days, I will be working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward with an amendment to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages,” he said in his statement released on Thursday.