Scroll Top

Opinion: N.J. minimum wage hike fight mirrors national economic divide between parties

Senate President Steve Sweeney

By Steve Sweeney

Critics of raising New Jersey’s minimum wage predicted an economic catastrophe if Democrats decided to ensure the state’s working class families got a fair paycheck for a day’s work. Jobs would be cut and employers would flee the state, they warned.

But now, months after the state’s minimum wage was increased from $7.25 per hour to $8.25, the critics’ predictions have predictably fallen flat. In fact, the opposite has occurred as workers are now boosting consumer spending at a time when our state’s economy desperately needs a jump-start.

When workers earn more money, businesses enjoy more customers, and we’ll grow New Jersey’s still-faltering economy from the middle out instead of the top down. One thing I think all Americans can agree on is that any mother who labors more than 60 hours a week should not be forced to raise her children in poverty.

New Jersey’s fight for raising the minimum wage — which included Gov. Chris Christie blocking Democratic efforts before voters ultimately approved the hike — mirrors the national divide between Democrats and Republicans over how to expand our economy.

Republicans, backed by CEOs and members of the wealthy elite, pledge allegiance to a failed policy that says economic growth begins at the top of the economic ladder and trickles down to the working class. Such thinking has only served to widen the gap between the rich and poor in this country.

Meanwhile, Democrats in New Jersey and across the country have offered a much different perspective rooted in the idea that we must grow our economy by investing in our working- and middle-class families. This is embodied in Democratic efforts across the country to provide minimum-wage workers with a long-awaited boost in their paychecks.

But, unfortunately for minimum-wage workers, these reforms up until now have been relatively isolated to states where Democrats control the governor’s mansion or the legislature. They include states such as New York, Connecticut, Oregon, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and California.

It’s no wonder that these same states are also experiencing some of the most pronounced economic growth in the nation. In California, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is experiencing something long-forgotten in New Jersey: a budget surplus.

Don’t look for Washington, D.C., for help. Congressional Republicans have blocked repeated efforts by Democrats and President Obama to raise the minimum wage, even though polls show that the American public overwhelmingly says an increase is long overdue.

Polls even show that a majority of Republicans want to increase the minimum wage. Perhaps one reason this group doesn’t excite Republican lawmakers is that they don’t have much money to donate to political campaigns, nor can they afford to wait for hours to vote.

Someone needs to tell Republicans in Congress that saying “no” is not an economic policy. They either need to offer a real economic plan for the middle and working class or just get out of the way.

I am happy to say that New Jersey’s minimum wage will never again fall victim to an economic culture war. That’s because I fought hard to ensure future increases would be automatic by tying them to inflation. Working-class residents should not be pawns in a crass political game.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin represents the worst elements of the Republican Party’s ideological philosophy. The Republican governor recently signed legislation that forbids Oklahoma City from establishing its own minimum-wage levels. The foolhardy decision was in response to local efforts to put the issue on the ballot this November.

It’s one thing to turn one’s back on the working class, but to double down by ignoring the will of the public is undemocratic.

I read with great pleasure that organizers in a number of Republican-dominated states, such as Alaska and South Dakota, are pushing to put minimum-wage increases on the ballot this November. As New Jersey has shown, when the will of the public falls victim to a failed ideology, the people’s only redress is the ballot box.

Read the Senate President’s editorial in the Times of Trenton here.