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Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

Obama’s Optimistic But Wisconsin Is Still Struggling

Issue of the Week

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President Barack Obama told about 6,000 enthusiastic union members and their families at Milwaukee’s Laborfest about his optimism about the future. It wasn’t about any grand legislation he was hoping to pass this year—we all know that congressional Republicans aren’t going to do anything to help the president help underpaid employees, working women, debt-ridden students and immigrants any time soon—so he has to act on his own to get things done. Rather, Obama was optimistic about the country’s recovery from the Great Recession and the grassroots and business support for raising the minimum wage around the country.

“The opponents say that raising the minimum wage is going to kill jobs,” Obama said. “Except it turns out that the states where the minimum wage has gone up had higher job growth than the states that didn’t raise the minimum wage.”

Obama may be buoyed by these efforts to give American workers a raise, but things don’t look so great for us here in Wisconsin. While minimum wage referendums are on the ballot in 16 Wisconsin communities this November—including Milwaukee County—and while they are very important to register the will of the voters, unfortunately, in Wisconsin, they are advisory only. A recent UW-Milwaukee poll showed that a full 76% of registered voters surveyed—including 85% of women—supported raising the minimum wage. So if legislators followed the will of their constituents, we would be giving our lowest paid workers a raise.

Plus, according to a new State of Working Wisconsin report from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), while the rest of the country has rebounded to their pre-recession level of employment, Wisconsin still needs to add 130,400 jobs to get back to where we were in 2007 and accommodate population growth since then. That’s because Wisconsin’s job growth rate is just 4% compared to the national average of 6.1% during the recovery. COWS points to the declining rate of public sector unionization in Wisconsin thanks to Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, plus the weak manufacturing sector, our severe racial inequality and the long-term stagnation of the median wage.

Some of these economic factors are beyond the politicians’ control. But we also need to elect a governor and legislators who support a higher minimum wage, fair pay for women, smart strategies to help students pay for their education and a sensible immigration policy that doesn’t demonize individuals. These are issues that our elected officials can tackle if we push them to do it.

Or, as Obama put it on Labor Day when the crowd booed Congressional Republicans’ obstructionism: “Don’t boo, vote.”