If raising the minimum wage would hurt business, as the Republican Party insists, then it stands to reason that lowering it from $7.25 an hour would help business. And since the business of America, as President Calvin Coolidge said, is business. What are we waiting for?
How about $5, perchance $3? That would be like a steroid injection for our sluggish economy. As a college student in 1970 I spent one summer working for a vegetable farmer and earned the base pay of $1.45 an hour. The minimum wage for farm workers then was lower than that for the rest of the workforce ($1.60), presumably because we could nibble fresh produce while we worked in the blazing sun or driving rain.
Business has taken so many big hits over the years it’s a wonder there are any entrepreneurs left. The compulsory six-day, 12-hour a day workweek is long gone. One of the first strikes in American history advocated for the 10-hour workday. Good times!
Child labor is now taboo, too, at least in this country. My fraternal grandfather began earning his keep at the age of ten in a Pennsylvania coal mine. Little people worked cheap and their tiny bodies and nimble hands allowed them to get into tight places where grownups couldn’t go.
Once the minimum wage was zero, zilch, nada, nil. For centuries slavery greased the wheels of commerce here and abroad. It wasn’t simply that free labor was good for plantation owners. Enslaved people represented collateral for commercial investment, profits for insurance companies, a lucrative market for New England beef and dried cod, and a potent stimulus to expanding global trade.
As hard as it will be for some readers to believe, it was the Republican Party that brought this business-friendly era to a screeching halt. To be fair, the “Grand Old Party” was in its infancy back then and wasn’t nearly so Grand. It has come a long way, blindly siding with business over labor in almost every instance since, fighting tooth and nail against most of the provisions that have shaped modern labor practices.
And the GOP is still fighting – and not just against increasing the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009. In Maine, Republicans recently tried to loosen restrictions on longstanding child-labor laws so teenagers could work longer and later on school nights (11 p.m.) and for considerably less than the minimum wage. Talk about progress!
But mainly, Republicans are pushing back against Obama et al., who are arguing that it is time to raise the minimum wage. The Democrats anti-business rant goes something like this:
- Inflation has effectively decreased the current minimum wage (which is not indexed to the cost of living as Social Security payments are) by more than 11 percent since 2009.
- To equal the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage circa 1968 would mean a current figure of $10.69, according to the Congressional Research Service.
- Lowest-wage Americans need the extra money just to survive and will spend every penny of it on goods and services, thereby stimulating the economy more than tax breaks for the rich, who already have everything money can buy.
Republicans reply pithily that businesses are people, too. If you don’t believe them just ask the U.S. Supreme Court.
My grandfather and I survived the coal mines and the farm. I went back to college. Michael Holahan was rescued from a life underground by an uncle who was a priest and put him to work for the parish.
In my grandfather’s day things were simpler and regulations were few and far between. There were states that didn’t require children to attend school but let them be put to work in mines and factories. Was that so bad?
David Holahan is a freelance writer who lives in East Haddam, Conn.