Organized labor contributed a lot of work and money to get Democrats elected to Congress last month. One candidate they helped elect from Ohio is Betty Sutton, one of three new Democratic members from Ohio. Sutton was working as a labor attorney before winning Ohio's 13th District seat, and she is heading to Washington with labor issues on her mind. She told a group of union members yesterday that voters gave her party a mandate. ideastream's Mark Urycki reports.
Labor leaders have a lot on their agenda as Democrats take control of congress - things like more affordable health insurance and stopping jobs from moving overseas. Perhaps first on the list for Democrats is raising the federal minimum wage. The party tried to use that issue nationwide to rally voters. Ohio and five other states raised their minimum. Betty Sutton told a group of about two dozen union supporters at the AFL/CIO hall in Akron that she will not only vote for a federal minimum wage hike, she'll sponsor it.
Betty Sutton: You can count on it.
Sutton says the wage issue has already won simply in a sense, because it'll get a floor vote - something Republicans refused to allow. Sutton will become a member of the House Rules Committee, meaning she will have a say on what votes come before the full house. While critics argue that raising the minimum wage mostly helps well-off teenagers, Sutton counters that the majority of people affected are over 20 and mostly women.
Betty Sutton: The people out there earning minimum wage who are sole providers for their families - and I met many of them - who weren't just working just one minimum wage job but two and three, taking them away from their family at all hours of the day and night just because they were trying to make it; they will be greatly benefited.
One of those workers is Clevelander Sean Belle, a father of seven children who gets along because his wife has a good job. But he works at KFC for $5.15 an hour. The new Ohio minimum wage will push that to $6.85 and the proposed federal wage would hit $7.25 after two and a half years.
Sean Belle: $2.10 is a big difference. A lot of people working at these minimum wage jobs will be happy to see that increase.
Afraid of layoffs?
Sean Belle: I wouldn't say layoffs, but they may have to cut their employees time now, as far as their work hours now.
Small business owner Nick Kostandaras isn't worried about the wage hike. He was once a union official and now owns Nick's Automotive in Richfield. He's also a Summit County Councilman.
Nick Kostandaras: By paying employees well, they are making a good decent living, they'll come in and have the right attitude and therefore they perform better. I'm a small businessman and I know it's costing us money but the work gets out in a timely fashion. We're making money; I want the employees to make money.
The minimum wage is a fairly minimum issue for most union workers. They also want Democrats to expand prevailing wage laws, stop tax breaks for American companies who ship jobs overseas, make health care more affordable, and enact the Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier for unions to sign up members. Sutton says Labor has had a tough time under the Bush Administration.
Betty Sutton: From rulings from the National Labor Relations Board through policy initiatives that have been passed, all of these have been used to chip away at workers' rights. This measure is only about providing some quality and fairness in allowing the door to organization to be open.
Right now fewer than eight percent of private sector workers in America belong to a labor union.