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President Shar Knutson of the Minnesota AFL-CIO said on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights that raising the Minnesota minimum wage to $9.50 an hour is unions' top priority. Looking on is the author of a state minimum wage increase bill, Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, a Bemidji native. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
President Shar Knutson of the Minnesota AFL-CIO said on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, at the Minnesota State Fair in Falcon Heights that raising the Minnesota minimum wage to $9.50 an hour is unions' top priority. Looking on is the author of a state minimum wage increase bill, Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, a Bemidji native. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Groups launch effort to raise Minn. minimum wage

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A coalition of Minnesota labor, religious, nonprofit and public service groups on Tuesday began rallying public support to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour over the next two years.

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Most employers in the state currently adopt the federal standard of $7.25 an hour for larger companies, though many workers who work for smaller companies can earn $6.15 an hour.

The Raise the Wage! coalition wants to see the state minimum wage gradually raised to $9.50 an hour by 2015, saying it would help lift lower-wage workers out of poverty and reduce the need for taxpayer-funded social services.

They also say it would be a $427 million annual boost to Minnesota’s economy, putting more money in the hands of consumers.

“Someone who works a 40-hour week shouldn’t make below the poverty line,’’ said Stacy Spexet, president of Steelworkers Local 9460 in Duluth, which represents nursing home and health care workers.

Tuesday’s effort included media events in Duluth and Mankato and a rally at the Minnesota State Fair.

“For too long, the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and that’s hurting Minnesota’s economy,” Joe Sheeran, communications director for Minnesota 2020, said in Duluth. Minnesota 2020 is another member of the Raise the Wage! coalition.  

The coalition is seeking an automatic escalator to raise the minimum wage with the rate of inflation. Sheeran noted that, had the minimum wage been adjusted for inflation, it would be more than $10 at this point.

The groups estimate that some 360,000 Minnesota workers currently earn the minimum wage. That includes retail workers and health care workers.

Opponents, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, say raising the minimum wage will force employers to cut jobs or decrease workers’ hours. That’s especially true of jobs for younger, entry-level workers, who would see fewer job opportunities, the chamber has said.

“Especially for Duluth competing with Wisconsin, we’re concerned about border communities and the pressures that would put on employers on the Minnesota side,’’ said Ben Gerber, manager of labor and energy policy. “We think you’d see a lot of jobs moving to Wisconsin. … Or your hamburger is going to be a lot cheaper in Wisconsin than Duluth.”

Others say increasing the wage will actually hurt the state economy by forcing companies to raise prices, hurting consumers’ buying power.

The Minnesota House passed legislation this year raising the minimum wage to $9.50 and adopting federal standards for overtime, reducing hours worked before overtime kicks in to 40 hours from the state’s current 48-hour rule for workers not covered by labor contracts. The Senate passed a more conservative bill, raising the minimum wage to $7.75. But no final version was ever acted on.

Supporters hope to build public support to demand that lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton act in the 2014 session.

Shar Knutson, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, speaking at the State Fair, said raising the state minimum wage is her group’s top priority.

“A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” Knutson said.

The $7.50 federal minimum wage, and even lower state wage, “is not even close to being enough,” she said.

Peggy Flannigan of the Children’s Defense Funds of Minnesota said that a $6,866 annual preschool child-care cost in St. Louis County is almost half the earnings of a minimum-wage worker.

Dayton said that taxpayers pay for items such as child care because parents cannot afford to. “That is as conservative a principle as you got.”

John Myers | Forum News Service

Forum News Service reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.

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