Hundreds rally for minimum wage increase

By Charles S. Johnson
Helena Independent Record, Aug 9 2006
HELENA — Although airplane mechanical problems stopped John Edwards from traveling here Tuesday to support raising Montana’s minimum wage, the potential presidential candidate threw his support behind it from afar.

Edwards, the Democratic Party vice presidential nominee in 2004, was grounded in Salina, Kan. He was unable to travel to Montana Tuesday for the rally or a later fundraiser at the governor’s mansion to raise money for Democratic state legislative candidates.

Asked in a telephone interview what he had intended to tell the Montana crowd, Edwards said:

“Raising the minimum wage is a huge issue for Montana. In fact, it is a huge issue for America. The Congress has not taken on its responsibility to raise the minimum wage. As a result, we have to do it state by state.’’

Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina, called it a sad situation when the Republican leadership in Congress “is blocking the will of the country.’’

Pushing for a higher minimum wage “is important to me because it’s part of my work to address the problem of poverty in America,’’ said Edwards, the director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina.

“Raising the minimum wage in Montana is particularly important, given Montana’s low rank in income,’’ he said. Some 30,000 Montanans now work for the minimum wage.

In Helena, an estimated 400 Montanans, many clad in the campaign’s bright orange Raise Montana T-shirts, rallied behind Initiative 151 on the grounds of the Capitol.

If voters approve I-151 in November, Montana’s current minimum wage, frozen at $5.15-an-hour since 1997, would rise to $6.15 in January, with built-in annual adjustments to match cost-of-living increases.

When master of ceremonies Steve Bullock announced that Edwards was stuck in Kansas with airplane problems, the crowd let out a collective groan.

But a number of Montana politicians pinch-hit for Edwards in what turned out to be a combination pep rally for I-151 and for Democrats.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer asked how people making $5.15 an hour could afford to buy $3-a-gallon gasoline.

“When are we going to decide there is going to be one Montana, not two Montanas?’’ Schweitzer asked.

State Rep. Monica Lindeen, D-Huntley, who is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, accused the Republican-led Congress of neglecting the minimum wage issue until recently. That’s when the House tried — and the Senate has blocked — tying a $2.10-an-hour federal minimum wage hike to permanently cutting estate taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

Republicans couldn’t take an up-or-down vote on the minimum wage, she said, but had to combine it with an estate tax break “for the richest of the richest of the richest, which includes my opponent.’’

In response, Rehberg, reached by a campaign aide in Korea where he is on a trade mission, issued this statement:

“Packaging together the first federal minimum wage increase in over a decade and repeal of the death tax is the quickest way to put more money into the pockets of Montana’s working families, farmers, ranchers and small businesses. Sometimes in Congress to develop broad bipartisan legislation you have to be creative to be effective.’’

Jackie Heldt, Montana AFL-CIO president, said the time has come to to oust the politicians opposed to raising the minimum wage.

“Now is the time to look at Denny Rehberg and Conrad Burns, look ’em in the eye and tell ’em, ‘You boys are comin’ home,’’’ she said.

State Auditor John Morrison said a full-time worker drawing the minimum wage makes less than $11,000 a year — too little to even think about buying health insurance and barely enough to feed a family.

State Rep. Dan Harrington, D-Butte, discussed his numerous legislative attempts to raise the minimum wage. He predicted the grass-roots support for I-151 spell trouble for lawmakers who opposed it.

Bullock, who ran for attorney general in 2000, said in the nearly 10 years since Montana raised its minimum wage, members of Congress have seen their pay rise by $34,000 a year.