RICHMOND -- Less than two weeks after the City Council made headlines by approving a $12.30-per-hour minimum wage, U.S. Rep. George Miller came to town this week seeking support for his bill to hike the national minimum wage.
"We're all here because we believe no one who works full time should have to raise their family in poverty," Miller, D-Martinez, said during a panel discussion he hosted Monday in the council chambers. "We know that increasing the minimum wage will strengthen families, strengthen the wage base of those families and put more customers on Main Street."
Miller, along with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, co-sponsored HR1010, a bill to raise the national minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25 to $10.10 in three years and index it to inflation thereafter¿. Miller hosted Monday's meeting in a city that has bolted to the forefront of the debate.
On March 18, the Richmond City Council voted 6-1 to become only the third city in the state, after San Francisco and San Jose, to establish its own minimum wage. The ordinance, expected to be formally adopted this month, would gradually raise the minimum wage in the city to $12.30 an hour by 2017.
Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, said after the City Council vote that Richmond is set to become the 10th city or county in the nation to pass a higher minimum wage.
Monday's meeting was attended by more than 100 people, and featured Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena; state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord; California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski and other labor leaders and academics.
Several speakers Monday cast a minimum-wage increase as a stimulus program that would vitalize local economies by putting more money in the pockets of workers who are likely to spend extra income on goods and services. Speakers also contended that economic growth in the last decade has favored the top income ranges, as productivity growth has benefited corporations and stockholders but failed to spur wage growth among most of the workforce.
Nikki Fortunato Bas, executive director of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, noted steep wage increases have not dampened growth in San Jose, which has one of the highest minimum wages in the country.
"Unemployment there fell from 7.6 percent to 5.8 percent in 2013, and local businesses saw 3 percent growth," she said.
Richmond's minimum wage would be a significant increase over the current state rate of $8 per hour. Other Bay Area cities are taking a similar course: San Francisco's $10.74 minimum wage is the region's highest; San Jose's rate is $10.15.
Berkeley and Oakland are also mulling minimum wage increases, and President Barack Obama has urged raising the minimum wage nationally -- it is currently $7.25 -- but Republicans in Congress are opposed.
"What's happening in Richmond is happening elsewhere in California and across the country," Miller said. "Mayors, county governments and governors are deciding they can't have a vibrant, thriving state if it's built on the backs of poor underpaid individuals."
Miller's bill, called the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its current $7.25 -- in three steps of 95 cents each -- then provide for annual increases linked to cost-of-living changes.
The bill was unveiled in March 2013, a few weeks after President Obama urged minimum wage increases in his State of the Union address. At the federal level, there has been some division among Democrats over how high to raise the minimum wage, and lack of Republican support has helped stall the bill in Congress. The National Restaurant Association is among the business interests that oppose Miller's bill.
Meanwhile, momentum to raise the minimum wage has grown at the local and state level as the ranks of minimum wage workers increase, wages stagnate and unemployment remains persistently high.
But there could be negative effects stemming from a hike in the federal wage to $10.10. A Congressional Budget Office report released in February estimated that total employment could fall by about 0.3 percent, or 500,000 workers, while bolstering the earnings of about 16.5 million workers.
Many economists have particular opposition to minimum wage hikes at the local level, noting that employers can more easily avoid the laws by setting up shop in nearby cities where they can offer goods and services for less.
The federal minimum wage has lost more than 30 percent of its buying power since its peak in 1968, said Sylvia Allegretto of UC Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor & Employment, and would be about $10.56 per hour today if it had kept up with inflation.
"This is a modest bill," Allegretto said of the $10.10 minimum wage proposal. "It would basically get you back to where you were in 1968."
Thompson said a minimum-wage increase is no panacea for widening income inequality and sluggish growth but would be effective as part of a larger economic plan.
"The people who complain about this (minimum wage increase), I have a challenge for them," Thompson said. "Try living on $8 per hour."