POLITICS

Sen. Joe Manchin Tells Struggling Workers He's Still Not For $15 Minimum Wage

The West Virginia Democrats held a private meeting with workers and anti-poverty activists campaigning for a $15 minimum wage.

West Virginia workers’ personal stories of hardship didn’t convince Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to back a $15 minimum wage Thursday. 

The West Virginia Democrat told a group of workers organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a national anti-poverty campaign, that he still opposes a $15 federal minimum wage during a private meeting Thursday morning.

“I was amazed that the senator would look in the face and hear the voices and then say but you know I’m talking about $11 and then doing a little bit gradually,” Rev. William Barber, one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, said after the meeting. 

Democrats have included a $15 federal minimum wage in their COVID-19 relief package currently making its way through Congress. But Manchin has said he opposes a $15 federal minimum wage, citing concerns about businesses. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) also came out against including the policy in the relief package. In order to pass anything under a budgetary process, as Democrats are pursuing, they need all 50 of their senators on board, and even then it’s still not entirely clear a minimum wage increase is possible due to Senate rules.

Manchin told the workers and activists he supports a more narrow increase to $11 an hour, adding that the rate should account for inflation, his Senate office confirmed. One of the workers who met with Manchin said the senator showed an openness to a $12 minimum wage. Federal minimum wage is currently at $7.25 and $2.13 for tipped workers.

“Having grown up in the small coal-mining town of Farmington, Senator Manchin understands the challenges facing working West Virginians and small business owners,” Manchin’s spokesperson Sam Runyon told HuffPost in a statement about the meeting. “He appreciated the opportunity to meet with Bishop Barber and members of the Poor People’s Campaign to discuss the issues most important to them. As always, he encourages West Virginians to exercise their first amendment right by continuing to reach out to their elected representatives to share their concerns.”

Demonstrators participate in a protest outside of McDonald's corporate headquarters on Jan. 15, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois. T
Demonstrators participate in a protest outside of McDonald's corporate headquarters on Jan. 15, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois. The protest was part of a nationwide effort calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 per hour.

House Democrats have previously voted to raise the minimum wage to $15. Currently, the provision included in Democrats’ COVID-19 package would do so over the next four years, and ultimately phase out the tipped minimum wage.

That Manchin, one of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats, took the meeting with the Poor People’s Campaign was a significant moment for the movement, which has been eager to get the stories of struggling Americans in front of lawmakers.

That said, the workers left the meeting unsatisfied. Among them was Brianna Griffith, a tipped wage worker in Fayette County, West Virginia, who lost her job last year due to the pandemic. Because she made a tipped minimum wage, she only received $67 a week in state unemployment aid — a benefit that ran out in August. She lost her house, and moved in with her grandmother. She’s gone back to work as a bartender, but has seen her income decline significantly with fewer and fewer tips coming in during the pandemic. 

“I kind of feel like he has his head in the clouds and doesn’t understand what is happening to poor people in West Virginia,” said Griffith, who is affiliated with the group One Fair Wage, which advocates against the tipped minimum wage, after meeting with Manchin.

Another worker, Pam Garrison, also from Fayette County, West Virginia, said she could tell while Manchin was listening, his mind remained unchanged.

“I think he heard our side but in his mind he was still wrestling,” she said, noting that Manchin brought up concerns from business leaders who have warned they won’t be able to absorb the additional costs.

Garrison made clear that she was not buying Manchin’s reasoning for opposing a minimum wage increase. 

“Just because we ain’t got college educations, we’re not dumb,” Garrison said. “We know what’s going on. We live it. Everyday we live it ... we know what side talk and spin is ... We have worked for slave wages and poverty wages for almost 50 years. And we can’t keep going on no more. We are at the point where the Depression was at. People were desperate. I’m telling you we are at that point now. We are desperate.”

Manchin is bucking his own party’s leadership in opposing the $15 minimum wage. President Joe Biden has publicly supported the policy as have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. But in the Senate, Manchin is not Democrats’ only problem.

Democrats are pushing their COVID-19 relief bill through a procedural maneuver known as budget reconciliation. Budget reconciliation allows lawmakers to pass some legislation with a simple majority, meaning that Democrats can bypass Republican opposition to pass parts of their agenda.

But Senate rules dictate any legislation passed through budget reconciliation must have a direct and intentional impact on spending and revenues, and it’s an open debate whether a $15 minimum wage falls in line with those rules.

Manchin’s resolve in opposing the minimum wage hike, even when faced with the harrowing stories of his own constituents, shows how much of an uphill battle the fight for a $15 minimum wage will be. Republicans are uniformly against it, as are business groups that claim it will only result in more unemployment. 

A recent estimate from the Congressional Budget Office projected that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would bring nearly 1 million people out of poverty, and increase the wages of 27 million workers. They also estimated 1.4 million lost jobs, though there are plenty of economists that argue that number is overblown.

The Poor People’s Campaign made clear it’s only going to ramp up the public pressure campaign on Manchin and they’re not interested in compromise. They will have activists protesting for a $15 minimum wage in West Virginia next week.

“It’s one thing for Republicans to block this, they have always been blocking but it’s a whole another form of betrayal if Democrats don’t step up in this moment and do right by all the people,” Barber said.