U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, speaking at Nashville’s Fisk University on Friday, May 2, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont and state Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville held a rally at Nashville’s Fisk University pushing for Tennessee’s minimum wage to be increased to $17 an hour.
“We default to $7.25, and we say you cannot survive off of $7.25,” Jones shouted to a packed crowd in the school’s gymnasium. “We are fired up, we are fed up, and we’re not going to take it anymore!”
The rally comes hot on the heels of Jones’ recent expulsion and subsequent reinstatement as a member of the Tennessee House, with lawmakers voting 72-25 in April to expel Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis over their roles in a nonviolent protest against gun violence in the Capitol.
Tennessee is just one of five states that has not adopted a minimum wage, relying on the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, a rate that hasn’t been raised since 2009.
The Volunteer State also has among the highest percentage of workers earning minimum wage.
In the year 2023, no one in America should be forced to work for starvation wages; I don't care where you are in America, you can't make it on $7.25 an hour, you can't make it on $9 an hour, you can't make it on $12 an hour.
– U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT
Speaking before hundreds of rally-goers, Jones said it was not lost on him that the rally was being held on June 2, which is National Gun Violence Awareness Day — the topic that catapulted him into the national spotlight.
“We have a movement being led by young people; parents, teachers and clergy, all saying that we want to live in a state where it’s easier to get a living wage job than it is to get an AR-15,” Jones said. “That’s the state we want to live in.”
“The issue that scares them most is this coalition of conscience that we’re building in the south, the same south that Dr. (Martin Luther) King came to stand with sanitation workers,” Jones said. “And 55 years later, we are still fighting for workers to be treated with dignity in a state where we have corporate bailouts for a new Titans stadium.”
Entering to roaring applause, Sanders vowed that he will work in Washington, D.C. to increase the federal minimum wage.
“In the year 2023, no one in America should be forced to work for starvation wages; I don’t care where you are in America, you can’t make it on $7.25 an hour, you can’t make it on $9 an hour, you can’t make it on $12 an hour,” Sanders said.
Sanders gained attention during his 2015 presidential campaign for his calls to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Sanders argued at the rally that — nearly 10 years after he first called for a minimum wage increase —$17 is more appropriate given the high inflation in recent years.
“It is not acceptable that today, in the richest country in the history of the world, nearly 35 million American workers make less than $17 an hour… it is a national disgrace,” Sanders said.
“According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a living wage for working adults in Tennessee is $17.56 an hour. That is what an individual in a household must earn to support his or her family, so the time is long overdue for us to raise the minimum wage, and together, we will do just that.
Bishop William Barber, II, mirrored Sanders’ sentiments, calling a minimum wage hike a moral imperative.
“Minimum living wages aren’t a far-left idea, a living wage is a fundamental moral issue,” Barber said.
“It’s not about left versus right, conservative versus liberal, it’s simply about right versus wrong. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage doesn’t cost jobs, doesn’t raise prices. In fact, more cash in the hands of working people actually helps the economy rather than tears it down.”
Jones told the Tennessee Lookout that despite the seemingly lofty goal of establishing a $17 minimum wage, public opinion was on his side, and that such an increase was favored by a majority of both Democrats and Republicans.
“The majority of Tennesseans support raising the minimum wage to a living wage, the majority of Americans support this on both sides of the aisle, so we just have to keep showing up and letting them know that we live in a state that has some of the highest percentage of low-wage workers,” Jones told the Lookout.
“These are people in my district, but there are also people in rural communities, and so we have to show up and let the leadership know that we need to vote on this.”
Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis has introduced minimum wage increase bills for years, though told the Tennessee Lookout on Saturday that increasing the rate alone would not be sufficient.
“I believe that the best approach now is to develop a formula that takes into consideration inflation and is indexed so purchasing power can, at a minimum, stay the same over the years and we don’t have to keep coming back to the well,” Hardaway said.
“I’d like to see that down on the federal level, I think that’s going to happen quicker than it will in 50 states.”
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