Updated at 3:45 p.m.:
President Barack Obama fired up a crowd at the University of Michigan with a fiery speech centered on increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, but also touching on familiar themes of partisanship that have dogged his presidency since his 2009 election.
“Nobody who works full-time should be living in poverty,” he said, noting raising the minimum wage won’t solve all of the nation’s economic problems, but reiterating that many impoverished Americans are working full-time.
The president said hiking the minimum wage is good policy, but Congress and state legislatures need to get on board. Democrats are generally supportive of the plan to raise minimum wage, even as some are considering less ambitious increases, but congressional Republicans flat-out oppose it, the president said.
“Republicans in Congress – not Republicans out there in America, because many of them are earning minimum wage – don’t want to raise it all,” he said, prompting the heavily student audience to boo in response.
“Don’t boo, organize,” Obama said. “They may not hear the boos, but they can read a petition and they can see the votes.”
He said some Republicans have said they oppose the increase because they think it primarily helps young people who work low-wage summer jobs.
“I think it’s OK to help young people,” the president said. “But most who would benefit are not teenagers.”
He said the majority of minimum wage earners are 35, and the majority of them are women working full-time to support their families.
Opponents also cite an unfair burden on businesses to meet payrolls and consumers to buy the goods they produce.
Obama invoked the memory of Michigan favorite son Henry Ford, the father of American automobile industry, who doubled workers’ pay a century ago under a plan that has become known as the $5-a-day policy.
“Here in Michigan 100 years ago, Henry Ford announced he was doubling his workers’ wages,” Obama said. “At the time, some of his fellow workers leaders thought he had lost his mind.”
The payoffs were many, Obama said, but most important “it meant the workers could afford to buy the cars they were building.”
“Fair wages and higher profits are not mutually exclusive, and that’s what Henry Ford saw,” he said. “Higher wages are good for the bottom line.”
He cited successful companies that are following that model, including the national Costco chain, but also Ann Arbor’s Zingeman’s Deli, where he had lunch before the speech. He chose the lunch spot because the owner, Paul Saginaw, pays his workers above minimum wage.
The president said Republican opposition to the plan is in keeping with the “you’re on your own” philosophy of opposition to universal health-care, food stamp benefits, early childhood education and special education funding, student college loans and other domestic programs targeting the middle class – one his and future adminisrations are challenged to rebuild, he said.
“What Zingerman’s can do and what I can do, that doesn’t reach everybody,” he said. “If we are to do right by our fellow Americans, we need Congress to get on board, we need legislatures to get on board.”
Manufacturing and other higher paying jobs in education and other sectors are coming back, but that doesn’t help lower wage earners who do critical work at the nation’s airports, hospitals, restaurants and retail sales, he said.
“They deserve an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work,” he said.
Our earlier report:
University of Michigan students, no matter their political persuasion, have been camping out overnight outside hoping to at least glimpse President Obama, who is scheduled to speak about increasing the minimum wage in about half an hour.
During his speech in Ann Arbor, Obama is expected to speak about increasing the federal minimum wage for non-exempt workers for the first time since 2009, to $10.10 an hour by 2016, up from the current $7.50.
“There’s no way I’m going to miss this,” David Schafer, a 19-year-old U-M student from East Brunswick, NJ told the Detroit Free Press. Schafer said he’s a member of the U-M College Republicans Chapter, but said the chance to see a sitting president “transcends issues.”
“Republican, Democrat, Independent, he’s our president. We’re the most partisan since the Civil war, so it’s a degree on unity.”
Obama might like to bottle some of that spirit of unity and take it to Congress, where the proposal has been met with a tepid response, even from some Democrats, who appear to be working with Republicans to put together a proposal for a more modest increase, The Huffington Post reports.
Those backing the proposal admit that a less ambitious plan to raise the minimum wage to around $9 would less money in low wage-earners pockets, but could offset any negative effects raising the federal minimum might have on employment levels.
Obama’s visit to the Ann Arbor campus, the president’s third since his first inauguration in 2009, comes at a time when petitions are being circulated to put a minimum wage issue on Michigan’s November ballot.
The synergy created by the president’s campaign to increase the federal minimum “is a huge shot in the arm,” Frank Houston, one of the organizers of the petition drive, Raise Michigan, told The Detroit News.
Houston is also state director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan, which is part of the coalition of workers’ rights groups gathering signatures to get the measure on the ballot.
But Michigan business community members say the cost of raising the minimum wage would be born by employers and consumers, who would pay more for labor and goods.
“Make no mistake that the radical Raise Michigan proposal to increase the minimum wage and completely eliminate the tipped minimum wage will not only increase menu prices and cost Michigan jobs, it will put many restaurants out of business,” Michigan Restaurant Association President & CEO Brian DeBano said in a statement.
Caleb Soilis, a 21-year-old U-M senior from Adrian, isn’t planning on listening to the president, but told the Free Press that he worries raising the increase would affect his raise at a restaurant – $10 an hour.
“Does my employer raise mine to be more in comparison with my colleagues … or will we be stuck with the same wage regardless of minimum wage?” he wondered.
Raising the minimum wage would have a huge impact on people like Charlotte Wei, a 22-year-old U-M student from Farmington Hills who was paid $2.65 an hour plus tips for her job at a fast-food restaurant. When she moved to a job at at an office-supply store in Novi, she was paid the minimum.
Obama arrived in Michigan at Ypsilanti’s Willow Run Airport about 12:50 p.m., exiting Air Force One with U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) at his side. Peters is running for the U.S. Senate seat opening with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Dearborn Democrat.
While in the Wolverine State, he may talk about Henry Ford’s $5-a-day policy that doubled most workers’ wages and helped create America’s middle class a century ago. That pay policy included shortening the work day to eight hours from nine.
Obama is also expected to cite companies that are paying higher than minimum wage, such as Costco.