When the House of Representatives passed the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, presidential candidate from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders, hailed it as a fulfillment of his prophetic vision.
“Four years ago, when I first introduced legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, it was considered an impossible dream,” Sanders said on Thursday. “Today, I am proud to say that a $15 minimum wage has gone from laughable to inevitable.”
And back to laughable, as a few hours later it emerged that the Sanders campaign itself has been paying its workers less than what its candidate has for years insisted would be a living wage.
Sources from both the campaign and the union confirmed the leaked story that the collective bargaining agreement, ratified in May, set a base pay rate for field staff at $36,000 a year. If you do the math, that works out to about $11.50 an hour, based on a 60-hour work week (plus benefits, including full health insurance without a premium, parental leave options and more).
After the news broke, the perpetual scowl that adorns the icon of contemporary socialism in America visibly darkened.
Sanders vented his frustration about staffers talking to the media in an interview with the Des Moines Register:
“It does bother me that people are going outside of the process and going to the media,” he told the Iowa newspaper. “That is really not acceptable. It is really not what labor negotiations are about, and it’s improper.”
He added, “We are disappointed that some individuals have decided to damage the integrity of these efforts. We are involved in negotiations. And some are individuals that have decided to damage the integrity of that process before they were concluded.”
He also told the paper that the campaign will limit the number of hours staffers work to 42 or 43 each week to ensure they’re making close to the equivalent of $15 an hour.
Ironically, this has been the sticking point in the vexed debate over the minimum wage. Hard-working people should be paid more money to be able to support themselves and their families at a decent standard of living. But imposing the higher wage on employers will force at least some of them to cut payroll in order to make their own ends meet.
Liberals say that’s a false argument for profiteering on the backs of labor; conservatives say it’s an economic fact of life, and artificially raising wages will only hurt the cause of the working population.
Economists have waged this war for decades. Some contest that a higher minimum wage does not cause significant job loss; others insist that it does. Research findings conflict, and the impact on a gigantic, complex economy such as that of the United States cannot be assessed as easily as that of, say, a presidential campaign.
And, as we know, what common sense dictates does not always match behavior in the marketplace.
(Just the same, it’s worth noting that the warnings about job losses do not come only from the reactionary right: The U.S. Central Budget Office estimates that, if implemented by 2025, the $15 federal minimum wage would boost paychecks for 17 million workers who would otherwise earn less than $15 per hour. About 10 million workers who now earn about $15 an hour might see their paychecks increase slightly as well. The trade-off would be 1.3 million more people out of work.)
Nevertheless, for the “Democratic Socialist” champion of a $15 minimum wage to be caught paying his workers less than that — and responding by seeking to cut their hours instead of raising their salaries — is nothing short of outrageous. Sanders isn’t bothered by leaks; he’s bothered by his own hypocrisy at being found out.
Having said that, the pay scandal in the Sanders campaign should not be exaggerated. As campaign gaffes go, it’s a minor one.
It will take more than an embarrassing inconsistency to sink Sanders — populism as a rule being impervious to embarrassment.
It will take the popular recognition that Sanders’ utopian promises of free everything for everybody is an embarrassment to any thinking person. It only sounds good until one starts thinking about how to pay for it. Like doubling the minimum wage without thinking there will be any price to pay.