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Unions Back $4.61 Minimum Wage : AFL-CIO Also Favors Strong Bill to Reduce Trade Deficits

February 17, 1987|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. — A bill raising the minimum wage and strong trade legislation are likely to be passed by Congress this year, said Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) and House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who spoke to reporters after meeting Monday with the AFL-CIO Executive Council at its annual winter conference.

Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, said he favored raising the federal minimum wage to at least $4.61 an hour, $1.26 above its current level, and said the minimum wage should be indexed so it will keep pace with average hourly wage increases from year to year.

Kirkland said the 12.8-million-member labor federation would work with Congress to achieve "effective trade legislation." He said such legislation must include a strong provision mandating a trade deficit reduction.

Specifically, he said the AFL-CIO supported a trade bill introduced by Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) "as a constructive beginning to overcome the trade crisis," which he said had caused the loss of millions of jobs in the United States.

Denounces Bentsen Bill

Kirkland denounced a less sweeping trade bill by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) as "a box with no contents."

Foley said he believed the Gephardt bill would be passed by the House, and Byrd said he believed the Senate would pass a measure that was considerably stronger than the Bentsen bill but not as strong as the Gephardt plan.

Neither Byrd nor Foley would venture a prediction on how much the House or Senate would be willing to raise the minimum wage above its current level of $3.35 an hour.

The minimum wage has not been increased since Jan. 1, 1981. Kirkland said that merely to restore the purchasing power of the 1978 minimum wage of $2.65 an hour would require a raise to $4.61 an hour. He said that would represent 52% of today's $8.85-an-hour average wage, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

Earns $7,000

About 15 million workers are employed at or near the minimum wage today, said Murray Seeger, the AFL-CIO's director of information. He noted that a minimum wage worker employed full time would earn $7,000 a year, $4,000 less than the poverty level for a family of four.

Seeger said that a disproportionately high percentage of minimum wage workers are women or blacks. "These workers are the have-nots of America," he said.

Secretary of Labor William E. Brock III has said he opposes raising the minimum wage, contending that it would discourage employers from hiring more workers, particularly teen-agers.

A recent study issued by George Washington University's Center for Social Policy reported that the minimum wage is now at its lowest percentage of the average hourly wage since 1950, representing only about 38% of the average wage in the country. In most years since 1950, according to the study, the minimum wage was between 46% and 54% of the average hourly wage paid to production and non-supervisory workers on private, non-farm payrolls.

Proposes $5.05 Wage

Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N. Y.) already has introduced a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $5.05 in five steps by 1991, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to introduce his own bill soon.

Several union leaders at the meeting said they thought it likely that President Reagan would veto an increase in the minimum wage. Kirkland said that Reagan was also likely to veto a tough trade bill. However, he said the AFL-CIO had no intention of softening its approach on the issue.

"There is a very serious, burning problem here, and that problem is not going away unless there is concerted and substantive action," he said.

He said that more than 70% of the nation's $170-million trade deficit in 1986 was attributable to imbalances with five countries--Japan, Canada, West Germany, Taiwan and South Korea. Kirkland said that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan had engaged in unfair trade practices and would be penalized in the form of tariffs, import quotas or other measures if the Gephardt measure is passed.

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