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House, Senate members introduce $15 federal minimum wage bill

Bernie Sanders, Keith Ellison and others join campaign by striking workers to raise nationwide minimum wage

Liberal members of Congress in both the House and the Senate will introduce legislation Wednesday that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, an in an effort to boost labor movement organizing around this issue and push the Democratic Party to the left on wage inequality.

Both versions of the bill will be co-sponsored by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the legislative branch’s liberal vanguard. The Senate bill will be sponsored by presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and the caucus’s only member in the chamber, while  Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., are among the sponsors of the House bill.

The $15 wage bill is the most ambitious Congressional proposal yet for a wage increase, and it would more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. President Barack Obama called for an increase to $9 in his 2013 State of the Union Address, a figure he later bumped up to $10.10.

A bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour has languished in the House for years. The odds are not in favor of legislation calling for an even bigger increase, but the $15 wage proposal gives progressive organizations and their allies in Congress a totem around which to rally. The bill is a direct challenge to other Democratic officials who have yet to support a significant wage increase — particularly Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in the party’s 2016 presidential primary.

Grijalva announced the new legislation during an appearance at Netroots Nation, an annual liberal conference held last weekend in Phoenix. Ellison was also there; when asked about the Progressive Caucus' role in the coming election cycle, he said he felt it was his job to clarify what economic populism looks like, so that public figures would be forced to accept or reject it on its own terms.

“My role is to make it clear that the issues that are of most concern to the average working American are front-burner issues for everybody running,” Ellison told Al Jazeera. “And they can either get with the people or they can go against the people, but they cannot hide and act like they’re for the people.”

Besides Bernie Sanders, one other Democratic presidential candidate has endorsed a $15 minimum wage: former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has often touted his successful campaign to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in his home state. Clinton declined last week to support a national $15 wage increase, citing the “different economic environments” in different regions of the country.

“What you can do in L.A. or in New York may not work in other places,” Clinton said, a reference to the recent wage increase in Los Angeles and the news that a New York state wage board is expected to recommend a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers this week.

O’Malley promptly went after Clinton for her remarks, issuing a statement saying that “leadership is about forging public consensus — not following it."

On the same day that the caucus unveiled its federal $15 minimum wage bill, federally contracted workers affiliated with the Good Jobs Nation campaign walked off the job in Washington, D.C. to demonstrate for higher wages. Good Jobs Nation, a project of the labor federation Change to Win, has spent the past two years organizing low-wage service workers employed by companies with federal contracts.

The progressive caucus has often collaborated with Good Jobs Nation on issues related to federal contractor wages and working conditions. Sanders, Ellison and Grijalva are all scheduled to address a rally of demonstrating Good Jobs Nation workers at a rally near the Russell Senate Building in D.C. A statement from the campaign predicted “thousands” of privately employed people who work in federal buildings would be on strike, including workers at the Smithsonian and the Capitol building.

Good Jobs Nation protester James Powell, a chef in the private Capitol Hill dining hall for U.S. Senators, told Al Jazeera he struggles to make ends meet for himself and his 3-year-old son. After five years on the job, his salary has increased from $12.06 to $13.06; at one point, he said, he ran so low on money that he was forced to squat in an abandoned house for a month while still working full-time on the Hill.

“I just want them to understand that there are people who work not 50 feet from them, or who they walk past every day, who are struggling just to make ends meet,” he said of the elected officials he serves on a daily basis. “It’s just not fair."

The campaign for a $15 minimum wage — which has won local victories not just in Los Angeles but also in San FranciscoSeattle, and SeaTac, Washington — emerged from the labor-backed wave of fast food strikes, which began nearly three years ago with the rallying cry, “$15 and a union.” Over the past year, worker campaigns in other low-wage industries have signed onto what is often called the Fight For $15 movement, adding to the pressure for minimum wage increases on a wider scale.

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