Bieber: Minimum wage cut hurts young workers

Ron Bieber

Just last year, Republicans and Democrats in Lansing came together and voted to raise Michigan’s minimum wage to $9.25 by 2018. It was a good start, and while we still need to go further, this rare display of bipartisanship gave a long overdue raise to more than 1 million Michigan workers.

Now some Republicans in Lansing are actually working to undo that progress by cutting the minimum wage for young workers in Michigan.

Senate Bill 250 was introduced this spring by Senator Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage. Her bill would cut the minimum wage by 15 percent for Michigan workers up to age 20.

In the eyes of the law and our society, 18 is the age when a person becomes an adult. Eighteen-year-olds are able to enlist in the Armed Forces, sign legally-binding contracts, and exercise their right to vote on Election Day.

But under this new law, it would be perfectly legal for fast food chains like McDonald’s and big-box retailers like Walmart to pay 18 and 19-year-olds a minimum wage that is 15 percent lower than that of their 20-year-old co-workers. There’s no other way to describe that but pure age discrimination.

Nearly five decades ago, our nation took action to end racial and age discrimination at the ballot box by passing the Voting Rights Act, and by ratifying the 26th Amendment to lower the voting age to 18 in all federal, state, and local elections. These crucial changes helped address fundamental injustices in our country, and empowered young adults to make their voices heard in voting booths at a time when 18-year-olds were being drafted out of high school to serve in Vietnam.

Why, then, would Michigan take a step backwards by passing a law that tells young workers they have the right to buy a house, the right to die in combat, and the right to vote – but not the right to earn a fair paycheck for a hard day’s work?

Instead of working to end discrimination in our state, SB 250 would codify workplace age discrimination into law. That’s just plain wrong.

The bill’s sponsor, Senator O’Brien, should know better. She was elected last year by a razor-thin margin of 61 votes in a district that includes the campus of Western Michigan University. Roughly 8,200 freshmen and sophomores are expected to enroll at Western this fall, and O’Brien’s bill would mean a pay cut for those who will be working minimum wage jobs at coffee shops, bookstores, and clothing retailers.

Taking money out of students’ pockets – especially when they’re already struggling to afford the skyrocketing cost of tuition – isn’t just unfair, it’s bad for our economy. It means students will have less to spend on books, food, housing, and transportation, which hurts small businesses.

The right to vote and the right to a decent paycheck should be sacred in America. We should be working to strengthen both, and we can start by expanding early and absentee voting, and by increasing the minimum wage to a truly livable wage.

But we simply can’t afford to go backwards by cutting the minimum wage for workers of any age. If Lansing politicians don’t support young workers’ rights to earn a fair paycheck, then young voters should exercise their right to vote those politicians out of office.

Ron Bieber is the Michigan state president of the AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.