From the moment Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed America’s first minimum wage law in 1938 (25 cents per hour, or $11 a week), conservatives have fought increases every time and everywhere they’ve been proposed.
It would cost millions of jobs, industrialists and business interests argue every time anyone tries to boost the minimum. Meanwhile, executive salaries have skyrocketed, leaving many millions of workers far behind in a phenomenon now called “income inequality.”
But now comes Ron Unz, former publisher of the American Conservative magazine and once a Republican candidate for governor, backing a new minimum wage for California two bucks an hour above the $10 minimum now set to take effect two years from now. Unz is not to be taken lightly; he authored and largely funded the 1998 Proposition 227 ban on most bilingual education programs.
Far from the Republican bugaboo it long has been, software entrepreneur Unz claims a higher minimum wage will solve many pet GOP peeves and could restore his party’s faded fortunes in the state. He is once again pushing an initiative, this time aiming to raise the minimum to $12 an hour immediately.
But Unz doesn’t plan to fund the campaign for this one alone, and contributions from others have been slow coming. So it might not reach the ballot until 2016.
If you’re a conservative and you don’t like illegal immigration, Medicaid, food stamps and other welfare programs, you might be disappointed by that kind of wait. That’s because Unz makes a good case for his claim that the best way to cut back on all those longtime GOP targets is to eliminate the need for them by paying workers more.
“I first got involved with this when I realized that a higher minimum wage solves the illegal immigration problem. The vast majority of illegals are in this country for jobs, jobs Americans won’t do,” Unz says.
He claims it’s not the nature of work in car washes, hotels, restaurant kitchens and vegetable fields that turns off American workers – it’s the lousy pay for that work.
“Americans won’t do those jobs because the wages are so low you can’t survive,” he says. “Now Los Angeles is talking about raising the minimum for hotel workers there to $15. When you raise the wages to a level like that, a lot of people are suddenly happy in jobs they wouldn’t touch before.”
If U.S. citizens take those jobs once they pay significantly better than welfare, a lot of the illegal immigration problem will go away. The same for programs like food stamps and Medi-Cal, Unz claims.
President Barack Obama’s effort to up the federal minimum to $10.10 gets firm resistance from Republicans in Congress voicing the same old arguments. Fighting Obama’s plan, Republicans pounced on a February report from the Congressional Budget Office saying it could cost about 500,000 jobs nationally.
Unz argues that number is misleading. Initial job losses, he claims, would be followed by job increases stemming from the roughly $150 billion a year the higher minimum would put into the economy. California Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Democrat, made the same argument last year while backing the scheduled 2016 increase. “Putting that kind of money into the economy will create far more jobs than it might cost,” Perez said.
And, Unz said in an interview, the report to Congress found that 27 million people – about 98 percent of those affected – would benefit, while just 2 percent might not.
“If a policy helps 98 percent of the people affected, it usually looks pretty good,” Unz deadpanned.
Plus, he figures, when minimum wage earners get more money of their own and need less welfare spending, the government will save as much as $250 billion a year, which could be used for anything and might beef up the economy.
So far, Unz has won backing from prominent conservatives like Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly and talk show host Bill O’Reilly. But elected politicians on the right are staying away from his putative proposition and those on the left are silent, perhaps because Unz would considerably outdo the plan they passed last year.
Whenever this plan reaches the ballot, Democrats will be in the odd position of either backing a Republican’s plan that makes them look like pikers, or opposing their own ideas.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.