CONTRIBUTORS

Pay Maine workers the wages they deserve

Posted April 28, 2013, at 12:21 p.m.

The Maine Legislature has been debating starkly different measures that will impact Maine’s economy and our middle class. One would give a needed boost to the minimum wage, while the other would have undercut wages by stifling collective bargaining.

Throughout American history, minimum-wage increases and collective bargaining have helped grow and strengthen the middle class. These laws have helped build pathways out of poverty and have helped millions of working families achieve the American dream.

In recent years, too many families have lost economic ground. The gap between the wealthiest Americans and those with the least is growing wider every day, making the task of climbing into the middle class tougher than ever before.

Maine’s minimum wage has been at $7.50 an hour since 2009. Mainers working full-time minimum-wage jobs earn $15,600 a year. No family of four can afford to live on that salary.

Just to buy a gallon of milk ($3.50), loaf of bread ($2) and put one gallon of gas in your car ($3.69), you have to work an hour.

The proposal to raise the minimum wage has already passed the Maine House and Senate in a party line vote and must still be signed into law by Gov. Paul LePage. It would increase the minimum wage from the current $7.50 an hour to $8 beginning July 1, 2014. The rate would increase 50 cents in each of the following two years and be indexed to inflation in 2017.

Raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do, and it will boost the state’s economy. When workers have more money in their pockets, they spend it in our grocery stores, repair shops and on our Main streets.

While Democrats are fighting to give the minimum wage a much-needed boost, Republicans and LePage would like to put Maine in a race to the bottom. They introduced two so-called “right-to-work” bills that would undercut collective bargaining in the public and private sector wages.

These anti-worker measures are a direct attack on the middle class in our state. They hurt our teachers, our nurses, our firefighters and police officers. That’s why Democrats soundly rejected them in votes last week.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average worker in states with so-called “right-to-work” laws makes $1,500 a year less, when all other factors are removed, than workers in other states. In these states, 26.7 percent of jobs are in low-wage occupations, compared with 19.5 percent of jobs in other states.

While LePage champions these so called “right-to-work” bills, they were unable to even muster support two years ago when his own party held the majority of votes in the Legislature. That’s because these ideas are out of touch with Maine people. They are polarizing and harmful measures that continue a course of vendetta politics that won’t do anything to help Maine’s economy.

Our workers are the backbone of our economy. We should raise the minimum wage and protect our workers’ rights to negotiate their wages and benefits. If we want Maine’s economy to improve, we must work on solutions that put more money in the pockets of working people, not less.

Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, is House chair of the Labor Commerce Research and Economic Development Committee.

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