Lansing — Michigan Democrats running for governor are backing a national push for a $15 minimum wage, advocating a policy popular with labor activists but opposed by many business groups.
The populist embrace from candidates such as former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed and entrepreneur Shri Thanedar shows a more aggressive approach by Democrats, whose gubernatorial nominee proposed a $9.25-an-hour state rate four years ago.
Michigan’s $8.90-an-hour minimum wage is set to rise to $9.25 next year under a 2014 law Whitmer helped negotiate with majority Republicans in the state Senate. She is now calling it a “good start” but “not enough.”
Whitmer and El-Sayed both plan to attend a Service Employees International Union “Fight for $15” rally at Henry Ford Hospital on Monday morning before marching in Detroit’s annual Labor Day parade. Thanedar is expected to march with the Detroit minimum wage coalition known as D15.
Former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs’ campaign website doesn’t address wage issues.
SEIU is helping launch what organizers are describing as a “massive voter engagement drive aimed at unseating anti-worker politicians” and electing leaders who support a $15 minimum wage, union rights and other issues.
Business groups and other critics argue aggressive minimum wage increases would force job creators to cut staff or raise product prices, but advocates say it would guarantee fair pay across the country. The proposal would more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Whitmer told supporters in March she wanted to raise the state minimum wage and said a $15 rate was “worth considering.” She made clear her support in a recent update to the “issues” section of her website.
El-Sayed “is, and has been, unwavering,” said spokesman Adam Joseph. “We need to fight for $15.”
Thanedar is also proposing a $15 minimum wage, arguing that “no one who works full time should live below the poverty line.”
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is opposing efforts to raise the minimum wage again, arguing it could make the state “uncompetitive in the race for jobs.”
Advocates for a $15 minimum wage could “end up hurting the very people they’re trying to help,” said Charlie Owens, state director of the National Federal of Independent Businesses, which also opposes the effort.
Owens said Michigan’s increase toward the $9.25 rate hasn’t slowed economic growth because many employers are already paying more than the minimum wage due to market demands. But he argued a $15 wage would force businesses to lay off employees, cut hours or raise prices on products or services those same workers may rely on.
“If this is implemented on a state or nationwide basis, there are going to be some who will see an increase in their pay. But for those who lose their job, they’ll go from whatever they’re making to zero, and they will never see $15.”
Labor Day plans
The Detroit Labor Day parade is a tradition for Democratic candidates looking to woo large crowds of union voters and show solidarity with organizations that could endorse or help fund their campaigns.
Whitmer, an East Lansing resident who fought the state’s 4-year-old “right-to-work” law in the Michigan Senate, is leading the early union endorsement race.
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union locals 876 and 951 backed Whitmer on Thursday, and her campaign now claims support from unions representing more than 170,000 Michigan workers.
But some of the state’s largest union groups, such as SEIU, the United Auto Workers and the Michigan Education Association have yet to back any 2018 candidates. Teacher union spokesman Doug Pratt said the MEA’s endorsement board has not yet interviewed any gubernatorial hopefuls and doesn’t have an endorsement time line.
Whitmer is set to address or visit four labor groups Monday and march in the Detroit parade with the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Joint Council 43.
El-Sayed plans to speak with union members at the Labor Day parade and will march with the Democratic Party Black Caucus. Later in the day, he plans to attend an Ann Arbor Democratic Party & Huron Valley AFL-CIO Cookout at Burns Park.
Thanedar, an Ann Arbor businessman who recently pumped more than $3 million of his own money into his campaign, will march with the D15 “fight for $15” coalition and attend the Ann Arbor picnic.
Cobbs plans to march in the Labor Day parade with the 14th Congressional District members.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Pat Colbeck, a state senator from Canton Township, is scheduled to participate in the annual Mackinac Bridge walk on Labor Day. GOP Gov. Rick Snyder leads the bridge walk and will be joined by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, another potential gubernatorial candidate. Attorney General Bill Schuette, also expected to run, plans to spend the weekend with family and friends.
‘Decent standard of living’
Democrats and liberal activists across the country are expected to push for a $15 minimum wage on Monday. Organizers promise fast-food strikes in more than 300 cities and hospital protests across the Midwest.
It’s a wage goal increasingly backed by Democrats. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year and narrowly won the Michigan primary, introduced a bill in May that would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 by 2024.
“Just a few short years ago, we were told that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was ‘radical,’ ” said Sanders at the time, crediting grassroots activists for refusing to take “no” for an answer. “Our job in the wealthiest country in the history of the world is to make sure that every worker has at least a modest and decent standard of living.”
The Michigan Republican Party singled out Whitmer in a memo released ahead of Monday’s SEIU rally, arguing her support for a $15 minimum wage is part of a “hard-left turn” as she “tries to ‘out-Bernie’ her Democrat opponents in an effort to appeal to the more liberal base.”
Four years ago, then-Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer proposed raising Michigan’s minimum wage 25 percent from $7.40 an hour to $9.25 over a three-year period and automatically tying future increases to inflation.
The proposal was rendered moot when Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature approved a similar law in 2014 to gradually increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.40 to $9.25 and undercut a petition drive for a $10.10-an-hour wage ballot proposal. Beginning in 2019, the state rate could rise or fall with inflation if unemployment remains below 8.5 percent.