By Mike Lillis and Kevin Bogardus - 08/29/12 06:06 PM EDT
Advocates pushing for a minimum wage increase are looking to turn it into an election-year issue as the campaign season heats up this fall.
Such a hike is expected to be included in the Democrats' 2012 platform — which will be presented to delegates at the party's convention in Charlotte, N.C., next week — a member of the drafting committee told The Hill.
In the eyes of labor unions, consumer advocates and liberal Democrats, the strategy is a no-brainer in an election season that's featured the birth of the Occupy Wall St. movement, questions about Mitt Romney's financial practices and a highly partisan debate over which class of workers deserve an extended tax break next year.
“The platform is all about building a strong economy from the middle class out, and the minimum wage is a key part of that," Lee said. "It's clearly something that's overdue. It will be good for working people and the economy.”
A minimum wage hike is not without political risks, however, as Republicans and business groups are warning that such a move would burden small businesses amid an employment crisis when Congress is urging them to hire.
An official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called a minimum wage increase “a typical election-year ploy.”
“This is a typical election-year ploy by some to make it appear as though they're supporting low-income workers,” said Marc Freedman, the Chamber’s executive director of labor law policy, in a statement.
“But the reality is that the small businesses who would bear the brunt of this increase operate on very tight cash flows and would have to find more revenue from some source to cover these increases. These are the businesses on whom we are relying to turn around the economy, and arbitrarily increasing their labor costs is not a prescription for job growth.”
Democrats included a minimum wage hike in their 2008 party platform. But once President Obama took office, the issue has gotten little notice despite the fact that the rate has been stagnant for more than three years.
"Those who want to see an increase in the minimum wage, which is a lot of people, need to be more creative and aggressive going forward," Lee said. "That includes the AFL-CIO, the coalition as well as many in Congress and people in the White House."
Lee was referring to a coalition of groups who are pushing for a minimum wage increase.
The Democratic National Committee declined to comment for this story.
Even supporters of a minimum wage increase concede that any such hike is unlikely before the election. Still, they're hoping a high-profile discussion of the issue on the campaign trail could energize voters and lead to action next year.
Supporters also argue the practical effects, saying a pay hike for low-wage workers will increase consumer spending.
“It can be very good for the economy because you are putting money in the pockets of the lowest wage workers who are likely to spend that money quickly,” said Julie Vogtman, senior counsel for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center (NWLC).
Vogtman said the NWLC sent letters to both the Republicans’ and Democrats' platform drafting committees asking them to take positions on a number of women's issues in their policy documents, including support for a minimum wage increase. Vogtman said doing so can help close the pay gap between men and women.
“Raising the minimum wage will help close that gap since the majority of workers making the minimum wage are women,” Vogtman said.
A coalition of groups, including the AFL-CIO and the NWLC, held a day of action last month to push for a minimum wage increase. They organized 50 separate events in 30 cities and have gathered more than 250,000 signatures for a petition calling for a minimum wage increase, according to Jen Kern, the minimum wage campaign coordinator for the National Employment Law Project.
“I think it's a winner. It's not controversial among voters. It would stimulate the economy. And doesn't cost the taxpayers any money,” Kern said. “Any candidate that would talk about this, it would be a winner, and we would like to see to that happen.”
Kern said to expect more action on the issue this fall, with backers writing op-eds and letters to newspaper editors as well as using social media to gin up support for a minimum wage increase.
The issue hasn't been ignored on Capitol Hill. In June, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) introduced legislation hiking the minimum wage immediately to $10 per hour — a figure that's roughly the equivalent of the 1968 rate, indexed to inflation.
The following month, Rep. George Miller (Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel, proposed bills to hike the minimum wage to $9.80 in three steps over the next two years.
Under all three Democratic bills, the minimum wage would continue to go up each year to keep up with inflation.
Some consumer groups have criticized the tiered approach of Miller and Harkin, arguing that businesses have profited for years by underpaying workers and shouldn't be allowed to continue doing so.
But even those who prefer Jackson's quicker timeline say the different Democratic approaches are inconsequential relative to the Republicans' opposition to any minimum wage hike at all.
"We're pressing our point of view, but legislatively we're urging members to become co-sponsors of both," Jackson spokesman Frank Watkins said Wednesday, referring to the Jackson and Miller bills. "It's a different approach to achieve essentially the same goal."
The proposals — combined with the minimum wage language in the Democrats' draft platform — could nudge the president on the issue.
Although Obama promised after his 2008 victory to hike the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, he's been much less vocal on the issue since taking the White House, and the minimum wage has remained at $7.25 since July 2009.
Meanwhile, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said as recently as January that he supports an increase in the minimum wage. Romney reversed that position a few months later, however, in the face of conservative push-back.
“There’s probably not a need to raise the minimum wage,” Romney told CNBC in March.