Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy & Corey O’Connor: Pa. needs higher wages, self-governance |
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Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy & Corey O’Connor: Pa. needs higher wages, self-governance

Minimum-wage workers join a protest Dec. 5, 2013, in front of the Market Square Dunkin’ Donuts.

It has been nearly 11 years since Pennsylvania’s Legislature took any action to raise the state’s depressed minimum wage. While states all around us passed laws raising wages, Pennsylvanians have been stuck at the lowest level allowed by federal law, $7.25 per hour. After years of workers standing up, rallying and demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage, on Nov. 20 the Pennsylvania Senate passed Senate Bill 79, legislation to increase Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $9.50 by January 2022. The bill will raise wages for more than 300,000 people across the state.

It’s about time, but we need to do better.

More than 1.13 million people in Pennsylvania make less than $12 per hour. Someone working full time at $9.50 will make less than $20,000 per year. No one can afford to raise a family on a salary that low. While $9.50 is better than $7.25, what workers really need is a $15 per hour minimum wage, unions for all and an end to Pennsylvania’s cynical preemption law.

Preemption is a tool exploited by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of corporate lobbyists who meet behind closed doors to create “model bills” that benefit corporations’ bottom lines at the public’s expense. When powerful corporate lobbyists learn that a local municipality is planning to pass a law with which they disagree — usually one that helps working families like raising the minimum wage or paid sick days — ALEC intervenes by influencing state legislators to prohibit local governments from passing their own laws.

Here in Pittsburgh, corporations and their trade groups used preemption to try and stop tens of thousands of Pittsburgh workers from getting desperately needed paid sick leave. Fortunately, their actions were not successful, and the Paid Sick Days Act avoided preemption and withstood all legal challenges. When corporations and state legislatures strip local legislators of their power to respond to the needs and concerns of our citizens, people suffer. Those who suffer the most are women and women of color who make less per hour than any other category of worker.

Any minimum wage bill will be incomplete without the repeal of preemption. Pennsylvania workers need the state Legislature to remove the language that currently blocks us from exercising our right to set our own wages and labor conditions — here in Pittsburgh and in local governments all over the state.

Pennsylvanians have suffered long enough. The difference between Pennsylvania’s minimum wage and a living wage is the difference between workers freezing in the winter and paying to keep the heat on. It’s the difference between leaving kids with a neighbor and leaving them at a childcare center where they’re safe. We cannot wait any longer. In this time of growing inequality, we need to adopt policies that will help Pennsylvania grow together — and we need to do so now.

This minimum wage increase is a move in the right direction, but this is far from the end of our fight. As we have done from the beginning, workers will continue to push other elected officials to listen to the needs and voices of the working people, and our needs are clear. We need a living minimum wage of $15 an hour and unions for all. We need the end of preemption so that cities can set local minimum wages. And we need all legislators to stand with workers for a government and an economy that works for all of us.

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy is executive director of Pittsburgh United. Pittsburgh City Councilman Corey O’Connor represents District. 5.

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