- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The House overwhelmingly approved a raise in the minimum wage yesterday, hailing the first increase in 10 years as a principle of basic fairness that will lift millions out of poverty.

“This is a matter of fairness,” Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, said of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, the second of the six bills that new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised her party would pass. “This is a matter of human decency. This is a matter of human dignity.”

The bill, approved yesterday on a lopsided 315-116 vote that prompted cheers from the new Democratic majority when the roll call was announced, would raise the minimum wage over two years from the current $5.15 per hour to $7.25, with intermediate steps at $5.85 and $6.55.

Democrats backed the bill by 233-0, while Republicans opposed it by 116-82.

But what Mr. Lewis called matters of fairness and human decency and dignity will not reign over all U.S. soil.

Although the legislation specifically extends for the first time the federal minimum wage to the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands, it exempts American Samoa, another Pacific island territory that would become the only U.S. territory not subject to federal minimum-wage laws.

“It’s ironic to me that one of the first bills they bring up that promises across-the-board fairness for all has an exception,” said Steve Forde, Republican spokesman for the House Education and Labor Committee.

Democrats agreed yesterday that pay rates in Samoa should be raised and that the minimum wage should be uniform across all U.S. territories. But, they said, the working conditions in the Northern Mariana Islands are “screaming out” for immediate attention.

The loophole pleases the tuna corporations that employ thousands of Samoans in canneries there at $3.26 an hour — an industry-specific rate set by the U.S. Department of Labor. They have lobbied Congress for years, arguing that imposing the federal minimum wage on Samoa would cripple the economy by driving the canneries to poor countries that don’t require a minimum wage.

One of the biggest opponents of the U.S. minimum wage there is StarKist Tuna, which owns one of the two packing plants that together employ more than 5,000 Samoans, or nearly 75 percent of the island’s work force. The other plant belongs to California-based Chicken of the Sea.

StarKist’s parent company, Del Monte Corp., is headquartered in San Francisco, which is represented by Mrs. Pelosi.

A spokeswoman for Mrs. Pelosi said yesterday that the speaker has not been lobbied in any way by StarKist or Del Monte.

A spokesman for Rep. George Miller, California Democrat and author of the bill, also said he is aware of no lobbying to exempt Samoa from minimum-wage laws.

Tom Kiley, Democratic spokesman for the Education and Labor Committee, said the Northern Mariana Islands were included in the legislation because “they were building an economy on importing cheap labor where you had worker abuse that was unparallelled in Samoa or anywhere else.” He added that the “goal is for there to be a uniform standard” and that lower Samoan wages should be re-evaluated.

Democrats have long criticized Republicans and the government of Northern Mariana Islands for suppressing wages in their garment industry by not applying the federal minimum wage to the territory’s standing $3.05 minimum wage. In particular, they charged former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and a lobbyist for the Mariana Islands government — Jack Abramoff — for fostering sweatshops.

Republicans are not expected to try to avert the increase, simply insisting that a minimum-wage raise be accompanied, as yesterday’s House bill was not, with what the White House called “tax and regulatory relief to help small businesses stay competitive and to help the economy keep growing.”

But Democrats and their allies in such groups as labor unions hailed the bill.

“This country doesn’t belong only to the giant corporations and the fat-cat lobbyists,” John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said during a press conference with Democrats on Capitol Hill. “You deserve a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work. No more excuses. No more delays.”

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