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For Ted Kennedy, increasing minimum wage was worth a battle

Edward Kennedy led a Capitol Hill rally in 1996 calling for an increase in the minimum wage. Denis Paquin/ASSOCIATED PRESS/File/Associated Press

The following excerpt — describing Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s 1995 push to increase the federal minimum wage — is taken from “Lion of the Senate: When Ted Kennedy Rallied the Democrats in a GOP Congress,” by Nick Littlefield and David Nexon. Copyright © 2015 by Nick Littlefield. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.

The evening [Rose Kennedy] died, [President] Clinton called [Senator Edward M. Kennedy] to offer condolences. The president’s State of the Union speech was only two days away. As the conversation was drawing to a close, the senator introduced the topic of the minimum wage increase. “Mr. President,” he said, “you ought to say you’re for it in your State of the Union. You ought to call on the Republicans to work on the amount.” The president responded, “I think it’s in.”


Discussions over the next twenty-four hours between Kennedy and his staff and the White House turned to the amount of the increase. Kennedy preferred $1.50 over three years. His labor allies and others in the groups supporting an increase agreed. White House staff hinted that the president was inclined to support a 75-cent increase. We resisted. It was decided at the White House that there was no need for the president to refer to a specific amount in the State of the Union speech. The White House press effort around the speech highlighted the president’s support for a minimum wage increase as one of his principal initiatives. The press reports stressed that Republican opposition would be fierce. Dick Armey, the new House majority leader, reiterated his opposition: “I will resist an increase in the minimum wage with every fiber of my being.”

On January 24 the president delivered his State of the Union address and, as predicted, opted for a statement in general support of the minimum wage increase rather than endorsing a specific amount.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy (left) looked on as President Bill Clinton announced his support for an increase in the minimum wage in February 1995.Greg Gibson/AP/File

The campaign begins

A week after the State of the Union address, Kennedy returned from Hyannis Port to the Senate for the first time since the death of his mother. [Senate Democratic Leader Tom] Daschle and [House Democratic Leader Richard] Gephardt scheduled a breakfast meeting at 8 a.m. the next day for the joint Democratic leadership of the Senate and House to discuss the Democrats’ agenda. Kennedy was invited to arrive at 8:30 a.m. to participate in the discussion of the minimum wage increase.

As with everything else on Capitol Hill, the majority party controls the congressional perks, including assignment of meeting rooms. Meeting rooms made available to the minority tend to be small, and this windowless room was packed. Members crowded around a large conference table; on one side sat Senator Daschle, and on the other Congressman Gephardt. Staffers were crushed together behind their members around the edge of the table and along the wall. As Kennedy entered and was shown to a seat at one end of the table, a senator was explaining that he didn’t think it was a good idea for Democrats to be for an increase in the minimum wage at this time because, in view of the elections, it sent the wrong signal. It was “old” politics. It would only help the poor. It had no chance of success.


Kennedy’s voice was an instrument of extraordinary range, stretching in volume from a whisper or a low murmur audible only to the ear at which it is aimed to a full-volume bassoon that can fill a convention hall without a microphone, and in tone, from hortatory, urging the audience on, to rowdy, as if on a roll with a joke, or, on occasion, angry. Having had barely enough time to take his seat, Kennedy unleashed a tirade on the subject of Democrats standing up for what they believed in. It seemed to me that he was still on edge, his emotions raw, from the week he had just been through after the loss of his mother. He clearly felt that everything he believed about the Democratic Party was on the line and that this was a moment of truth. All the Democratic leaders of Congress were gathered in one room, and this was his moment to make clear how he felt about the importance of the party fighting to raise the minimum wage. Democrats would either stand for their historic principles or, in the wake of the election, turn their backs on those principles and on the people who had supported Democrats for sixty years. It was as if all the meetings and discussions and strategizing since November 4 came down to this one moment.


“I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” he exploded. “If there is one cause the Democrats should stand for it is improving the wages of working people. If we are not going to fight for the wages of working people, who will fight for them? When the economy is thriving, and corporate profits are at an all-time high, and CEO salaries are hundreds of times what the average worker’s is, who says we can’t afford to increase the minimum wage by 50 cents an hour? It is unacceptable in America for anyone to work forty hours a week, fifty weeks a year, and still not be able to lift his family out of poverty. We can’t do much about wages generally, but raising the minimum wage is one thing we can do. We know it works, it doesn’t cost jobs, it helps women, who make up 65 percent of the minimum wage work force. Who are we afraid of? Is it the National Restaurant Association or the NFIB [National Federation of Independent Businesses, the principal small business lobby]? Isn’t it better to raise wages of 10 million Americans than worry about a few restaurant owners in our districts? Eighty-five percent of the public supports raising the minimum wage. The minimum wage today is way below what it should be if it had kept pace with inflation since before the Reagan administration.”


‘What will we ever fight for?’

He was in full red-faced volume in this small room, as if he were addressing a crowd of ten thousand on the steps of the Capitol. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” he repeated. “The minimum wage will only help the poor, so we can’t be for it? Well, if we won’t fight for this cause, what will we ever fight for? If we won’t stand with low-income Americans, who will? If we can’t get behind a measure that has 85 percent popularity in the polls, then our heads aren’t screwed on right. We can’t be for it because it has no chance of success? Because the Republicans say there never should have been a minimum wage in the first place and they’ll fight the increase with every fiber in their being? Well I say, bring on the fight! What better draws the distinction between us and the Republicans? I tell you if we fight for this issue, we’ll win it, and we’ll win it in a Republican Congress. If we don’t, we don’t deserve to call ourselves Democrats!”

Senator Edward Kennedy unveiled a major legislative plan including further increases in the minimum wage during an address at the National Press Club in 1997. Karin Cooper/ASSOCIATED PRESS/File/Associated Press

When he finished, there was a long silence, as if he had sucked the air out of the room. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was the first to speak up: “Well, I guess we now understand how Ted feels about this.”


No one spoke in opposition. “Well, if we’re going to do it, what level can we support?” asked a House member. Kennedy urged $1.50, an increase of 50 cents an hour for three years. Others suggested 75 cents over three years, at 25 cents a year.

Kennedy had a unique effect on his Democratic colleagues. They knew he was a fierce advocate and an exceptionally hard worker, that he was sincere and cared intently about the causes he fought for, that he was always well-prepared and thinking ahead, often of everyone else in the room. They liked his joviality and his commitment to the Senate. On the other hand, they thought he could go over the top. I felt that sometimes they wished he weren’t there to hold their feet to the fire on progressive issues that they’d just as soon ignore. Or they thought his approach wouldn’t work in their states, that he got away with being an outspoken progressive because he was from Massachusetts or because he was a Kennedy.

Recipients of a Kennedy harangue might believe that they were being talked down to, that Kennedy was being arrogant, that he thought he was always right, that he was belittling their intentions or questioning their conviction because they didn’t feel exactly the way Kennedy did. But it had an effect. Listeners admired him and respected the fact that he hadn’t surrendered his principles over thirty years in the Senate. They knew, in this case, that he would not give up until the minimum wage issue was brought front and center to the Democratic agenda. They knew they would have to deal with it one way or another, and they didn’t want to be on the wrong side of the issue. Resentment at a passionate argument from Kennedy was always muted because members of Congress respected his sincerity and commitment. They knew when it was over, Kennedy could laugh at himself, give his adversary a friendly slap on the back, share a joke, or otherwise take away the personal sting. They knew he didn’t act impulsively, and if his speech that morning in the caucus room was an exception it was also a window into his heart and into everything he believed the Democratic Party should stand for.

Kennedy’s visit to the leadership meeting took less than half an hour. As the discussion about the size of the increase and how to go about reaching a consensus took over the room, the tension abated, and everybody began to relax. The camaraderie that had been missing among the Democrats returned. When the discussion on the minimum wage was finished, Kennedy got up from the table and left the room with a hearty laugh and a pat on the back from several members sitting by the door. The members agreed that they would meet again to try to reach an agreement on the level of increase the entire caucus could support.

Working the floor, phones

Between the leadership breakfast meeting and the end of the week, Kennedy contacted members of the House and Senate who were thought to be on the fence on the issue. He worked on the White House. He visited congressmen and senators in their offices. He kibitzed with senators on the floor during votes, telephoned each member of the Labor Committee, rallied staff — his own and staff of other senators — and met with labor groups and others in the minimum wage coalition.

We had called the minimum wage coalition back into existence in November 1994. This assemblage of church groups, civil rights groups, women’s groups, children’s groups, and labor, who all strongly supported the $1.50 increase, had last met in 1989, during the last successful initiative, also spearheaded by Kennedy, to raise the minimum wage.

The senator knew that a $1.50 increase was not going to prevail with the White House or the Democratic leadership in Congress, and he was looking at compromises. One idea we had was simply to drop off the third year of the 50-cent increases, and turn it into a two-year increase of 50 cents a year, for a total of $1.00. The question was whether that compromise would be accepted by the leaders of the labor movement, who had already taken a strong position for an increase of $1.50. Kennedy met with AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland and secretary-treasurer Tom Donahue, both of whom were longtime allies of his. Donahue in particular was a very close friend. Kennedy wanted to convince them that they should support 50-50 for two years. Then “we can come back and get another increase for the third year,” he argued. Without support from labor, it would be almost impossible to pass a bill.

At his best

The minimum wage legislation showcased Kennedy at his best. He came down from his own preferred position to 50 cents a year for two years. At the same time he persuaded reluctant conservatives to go along with increasing the minimum wage, and then with increasing the amount they’d be willing to accept, from 25 cents a year to 50 cents a year. It was a perfect legislative compromise: those who sought the higher increase could take comfort in getting the first two years of a three-year plan; those who wanted a lower increase could point to a one-third reduction in the original proposal.

Kennedy was in close contact with Congressman Gephardt, who, like Kennedy, wanted to make sure the Democrats in the White House, House, and Senate were united on the issue. For Gephardt it was a question of what he could get the conservative Democrats in the House caucus to support. Speaking for conservatives in the Senate, Senator [John] Breaux was now arguing for an increase in the amount of 50 cents for one year and 25 cents for the next.

A day after the meeting with the joint leadership, Kennedy met with Daschle to get a report on his conversations with the leadership and other Democrats in the Senate. Daschle made it clear that 50-50 was okay with him, but he thought that 50-25 was the best that the whole caucus would agree to. He had surveyed the other members of the Democratic leadership, and they too would only go to 75 cents, the level Breaux was comfortable with.

Later that day Kennedy went to the White House for a meeting on welfare reform, and the topic of the minimum wage came up. The senator talked with the president’s staff members and then to the president, who told him, “I did what you asked me to do in the State of the Union, and 50-50 is okay with me.” The president was now on board.

Kennedy then made the rounds of congressional Democrats. He told Daschle 50-50 was the lowest he would go. He talked to members of the House, who still weren’t sold on 50-50. The House leadership still wanted to have a consistent position among all Democrats. Congressman David Bonior, a liberal, proposed 45-45, a masterful stroke because this was the amount that Congress had voted for in 1989 and that President George H. W. Bush had agreed to support. But Bonior was not hopeful that the conservative Democrats in the House or the Senate would go along.

Kennedy met again with the labor leaders Donahue and Kirkland. They were not enthusiastic about anything below $1.50. Donahue said, “Why should we go along if we’re not getting anything in return? We haven’t even been guaranteed that Breaux and the other conservative Democrats will support the 45-45.”

Sarah Fox, Kennedy’s chief labor policy staff member, advised him that there were reports coming out of the AFL-CIO building that Kirkland and Donahue might ultimately be persuaded to go below $1.50. Kennedy again called each of the eight Democrats on the Labor Committee, asking if they would accept 45-45. Then he went back to Daschle and Gephardt. He made the argument over and over again that 90 cents was the amount of increase that was negotiated with [President George H.W. Bush] in 1989. “We ought to be able to match that now,” he urged. That level of increase was approved by a Republican president and supported by many Republicans in the House and Senate at that time. If a 90-cent increase was good in 1989, why isn’t it just as good in 1995, when the minimum wage had once again fallen below its historic level in relation to the cost of living, the poverty level, and the average wage?


It looked as if everyone would fall in line behind 45-45, and the word went out to all the groups in the coalition that they should prepare to attend a press conference in the Russell Building, where it would be announced that a consensus had been reached among Democrats to propose a 90-cent increase at 45 cents each year for two years. Each group was urged to bring a written statement on the group’s stationery endorsing the 45-45 increase. Democrats supporting the 45-45 increase were invited to attend a press conference to be held in the Rose Garden of the White House to announce that agreement had been reached among Democrats to support the increase.

On February 3, in the Rose Garden, the president, surrounded by Democrats, including Kennedy, announced that he was proposing a 90-cent increase in the minimum wage, from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour over two years. Although no Republicans attended the ceremony, it was an auspicious moment because Democrats across the spectrum had agreed to support the measure. It turned out to be a big moment in the resistance as well: the Democrats came together as a united force to lay down a marker against the Republican juggernaut. Few would have predicted then how far the minimum wage fight would lead and how successful it would turn out to be as a rallying point for the Democratic resurgence.

Later that morning, in a small room in the basement of the Russell Building, more than twenty-five groups in the minimum wage coalition arrived with their statements in support of the increase at 45-45. The press conference was hosted by the Women’s Legal Defense Fund and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The coalition put out its own press release and attached each of the statements from each of the groups. Someone from Kennedy’s press office delivered these releases to the Congressional Press Gallery. The issue was joined.

What had seemed impossible just a month before had been achieved. The Democrats were united. The White House was on board. All our public interest allies had accepted the compromise, and announcements had been made at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The conventional wisdom in Washington still maintained that the minimum wage increase had no chance in a Republican Congress. But the effort had begun.

Senator Ted Kennedy, with senators Barack Obama and Max Baucus, reacted to passage of the Minimum Wage Bill on Capitol Hill in 2007.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/Associated Press