For POTUS, a Nutmeg Flavored Push to Reward Hard Work…
UPDATED 10:42PM: For additional photographs.
NEW BRITAIN, Conn.—Welcomed to Central Connecticut State University with a roaring applause, President Barack Obama came to the Nutmeg State in the hopes of boosting his quest to raise the federal minimum wage. Joining the president on stage were the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, whom Obama credited with trying to boost the pay of working families in their own states.
The genesis of the event has been widely attributed to Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy and his impromptu retort to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s attack on Democratic policies after a bipartisan gubernatorial meeting at the White House. “Governor Bobby Jindal did not make it to Connecticut,” Malloy said in his introduction.
With an audience stacked with college students, many with work study as the president noted, there was no shortage of love for Obama and his efforts to raise the minimum wage, in contrast to an often skeptical attitude in much of the nation.
One person in the crowd said they loved the president to which the president replied in kind, but added, “We can’t just spend the whole day saying how much we love each other.”
Malloy introduced the president standing with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee and Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Democrats all.
Noting that people working 40 hours a week often live in poverty, Malloy said, “They deserve a decent wage and we’re going to give to them here in Connecticut.”
A proposal before the legislature would add onto last year’s minimum wage law and raise Connecticut’s minimum wage to $10.10, the same as President Obama has proposed. The leader of the state Senate, Donald Williams, said he expects it to pass given its support with the legislature and Malloy.
“I think you are going to see both Democratic and Republican support for it, because it the right thing to do from a policy basis, but it is also the right thing to do for workers and their families,” Williams said in an interview with WMassP&I after the speech.
Malloy, alluding the rising concerns about inequality in the United States, noted that “$10.10 adjusted for inflation is what we were paying 1968.” “A rising ride should raise all boats,” who is up for reelection this year and is the first Democratic governor of Connecticut since 1990.
Obama was jovial and got in a few laugh lines, too. He pointed out student government logo, which includes a gavel and a pitchfork, “”I wished some folks in Congress used the gavel more…less pitchfork.”
“We decided one governor was not enough,” the president said introducing his gubernatorial companions. “It’s like the justice league of governors…I’d call them the New England Patriots, but that name is already taken.
Obama turned to the broader theme of American opportunity, noting that two of the governors with him, Malloy and Shumlin, had dyslexia as children, something he says he learned on the car ride from Bradley Airport. With the help of family and others, they made “extraordinary achievements.” While not riding with Patrick, the two are close friends and Obama added that the Massachusetts governor rose up from the South Side of Chicago to become a governor because “somebody gave him a chance.”
“The central premise of this country is the chance to achieve your dreams if you work hard,” Obama said. “It doesn’t matter where you start, it is where you finish.”
The president highlighted that while the economy is improving, there have been forces that have made it harder to be upwardly mobile and have been buffeting the middle class for some time. “But we have some work to do to match up our ideals with the reality with what is happening on the ground right now,” Obama said, particularly for the next generations.
While the minimum wage took center stage in the college gymnasium turned presidential pep rally, it was just one plank of a broader platform the president and the White House have been pushing to improve the economy and provide greater economic security in the United States.
Among the components is a focus on creating a “study supply of good jobs” and not just replacing those lost in the recession, job training and making education accessible and affordable for anybody who wants. Obama highlighted reforms in student loans and payment caps for some borrowers in repayment, but also alluded to the need to rein in the costs of education itself.
The final component, which included minimum wage, the ability to save for retirement, getting health insurance and pay equity, is ensuring that “If you are working hard then you get ahead.” The president also took an opportunity to urge people to sign up for health insurance and praised Connecticut’s work on health reform, “You guys are doing a great job implementing the Affordable Care Act.”
The minimum wage was center stage. “Nobody who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. That violates a basic sense of who we are…and that is why it is time to give America a raise.”
Obama noted that it was over a year since he first asked Congress to raise the minimum wage and while Congress did not act, six states did and other efforts are afoot elsewhere like in states of the governors’ behind him and in New Hampshire, whose Democratic governor Maggie Hassan could not attend. Later in his speech, Obama said that Congress’s refusal to act on a higher wage last year had the effect relative to otherwise rising costs of living of a $200 pay cut.
However, the president also said it was not just government that was raising wages. He rattled off the names of well-known brands like Costco and The Gap which already pay better wages or have committed to an increase. “It is a smart way to boost productivity to reduce turnover to instill more loyalty in their employees.” Noting that many of these companies do well despite higher wages, “It’s not bad business to right by your workers, it is good business.”
The same goes for contractors whose employees are “cooking the meals of our troops or washing their dishes.” “This country should pay those folks, a wage you can live on,” Obama declared, who have received an increase thanks to an executive order of his.
A number of small businesses have proven that is works on the small scale as well Obama said referring to a number of businesses that pay above the minimum wage. The president pointed out a local Connecticut business owner Doug Wayne who not only pays his employees above the minimum wage, but advocates in print and in person to anybody who will listen. The president attributed his success to treating his employees like family.
But applauding business leaders and local officials alone could not bring help to all Americans, “Congress has to get on board.”
Obama noted that despite improving job prospects in better paying jobs in manufacturing, education and other elsewhere, there will always be minimum wage workers across all sectors of the economy. “Folks that are doing all of the hard jobs that make our society work,” he said.
Despite overwhelming support from all segments of society, including more than half of Republicans, the GOP in Congress oppose a wage increase. Obama joked that perhaps if he came out against raising the wage, a bill could get to his desk. Just passing legislation to raise the minimum wage that would raise wages for 28 million Americans including 1 million New Englanders and lift millions out of poverty.
Opposition to the wage, Obama argued does not make sense. A higher wage, the president said, puts more money in people’s pockets that they can spend in the economy. However, there are members of Congress who would repeal the minimum wage and, as Obama said argue, among other species arguments, that it has “outlived its usefulness” or it “only helps young people.”
To that end, Obama asked why helping young people is a bad thing, suggesting such minimum wage critics should try to themselves through college on work study. Most minimum wage workers are not young people. In fact the average age of such workers is 35.
Obama then turned to the audience, particularly those at home since Connecticut officials largely back a higher wage, and urged them to press their leaders to support a higher minimum wage. “Raise workers’ wages and grow our economy…or give workers what amounts to another pay cut,” he said.
“Let’s go out there and go give America a raise,” the President said closing out his speech.
To cheers the president exited the stage to shake hands with those standing in front of the rostrum. Western Massachusetts political officials were among those in attendance including Longmeadow School Committee Chair Michael Clark, Springfield at-large City Councilor Thomas Ashe and Hampshire County Registrar of Deeds Mary Olberding.
“The President is calling attention to a very important part of our economic recovery, giving low wage earners a decent living wage,” Olberding said. While not possible during the depth of the recession, she added “Now that the economy is on the upswing, the country can afford to give low wage earners a raise for the first time in a long time.”
Williams, the Senate President Pro Tem, said of Obama’s remarks, “I thought it was a very strong speech. He’s touching on an issue that has wide and strong support in the state of Connecticut.”
The Nutmeg State has raised its minimum wage many times more than the federal wage in recent years and Williams said little of the dire economic impact from a higher wage has been felt here, “Those prediction are always made whether it is at the federal level or the state level.” Instead, Williams continued, “it helps lift people out of poverty in an age of growing wage disparity and inequality” and lessen that gap.
Olberding made another point, alluding to less repeated element of the president’s speech. “Our economy values investment and rewards it with the rise in the stock market and record high corporate earnings,” she said, “I think raising the minimum wage is a way to show that we value hard work!”