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Bernie Sanders pushes for $17-an-hour US minimum wage

US Senator and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Bernie Sanders speaks during a news conference with labor leaders to make an announcement on the federal minimum wage in Washington, DC, on May 4, 2023. ©AFP

Washington (AFP) - Leftist US senator Bernie Sanders announced a bill Thursday to raise the national minimum wage to $17 an hour, reigniting the battle for better pay standards as workers see pandemic-era gains erased by runaway inflation.

The $7.25 federal floor has not increased since 2009, and the dollar has since lost almost a third of its purchasing power, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Sanders, a former presidential candidate, has been campaigning for years for a hike but has been rebuffed by Congress, amid opposition from conservatives who fear harming small business and worsening inflation.

"In the year 2023 in the richest country in the history of the world, nobody should be forced to work for starvation wages," said the self-described democratic socialist. 

"It's not a radical idea.If you work 40, 50 hours a week, you should not be living in poverty.It is time to raise the minimum wage to a living wage."

Sanders, chairman of the Democratic-led Senate's powerful Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said his members would finalize legislation in June for a $17 minimum wage phased in over five years.

Raising America's lowest salaries is one of President Joe Biden's top policy goals, but a group of Democratic senators joined Republicans in 2021 to thwart a Sanders proposal for a $15 per hour base.

It is not clear that this new attempt would gain favor either but a defiant Sanders -- flanked by workers, trade union leaders and a leading economist -- urged his colleagues in Congress to try living for a month on $7.25 an hour.

The widespread public support for increases in even the most conservative parts of the country has been demonstrated time and again over the last decade, as a dozen states have held successful votes to raise the wage floor. 

Florida, where the governor and both US senators are Republican, voted for a $15 minimum in 2020 while in last year's midterm election, two states that elected Republican governors, Nebraska and Nevada, also approved increases. 

'Increased inequality'

The Covid-19 outbreak boosted US wages, with companies facing serious labor shortages. Walmart, Costco, Amazon, Target and Chipotle pushed their hourly base close to or beyond $15, while Apple and Bank of America went up to $22.

The increases appeared significant, but economists warned they would slow as more people returned to work. 

And prices have soared -- hitting 40-year highs last year -- in part due to worldwide supply chain snags, creating shortages of key components like computer chips needed for cars and electronics.

Data released in late April showed the Federal Reserve's favored measure of inflation at 4.2 percent, down from 5.1 percent a month earlier but still way off the long-term target of two percent.

Some 35 million US workers still earn less than $17 an hour, Sanders said as he introduced 64-year-old Cookie Bradley, a home health care worker and founding member of the Union of Southern Service Workers.

"Workers in my city -- Durham, North Carolina -- we can't even afford health care, because we can't make the wages," said Bradley, who worked for more than 30 years in the fast food industry, never making as much as $15 an hour. 

Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, said minimum wage increases had been shown time and again to reduce poverty and inequality, child abuse, teen pregnancy and suicide -- without substantial job losses.

"When you raise the minimum wage, it makes our economy stronger," she told reporters."The policies of the last four-plus decades that have increased inequality...have also slowed overall economic growth."

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