It has been almost 12 years since the minimum wage in Tennessee was last raised. But that increase did not come at the hands of the state legislature, rather from the federal level. Now, after a failed attempt from the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan to include a minimum wage increase, and another bill dying in the General Assembly, will Tennesseans ever see a minimum wage increase from state officials?
First introduced by Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) and Rep. Jesse Chism (D-Memphis) Feb. 10 of this year, SB 0550/HB 0797 scheduled yearly increases, changing the current $7.25 per hour rate to $9.25 by January of next year. It would continue for the next three years until, finally, reaching $12.00 by 2025.
After being sent to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, the bill failed with only one of the two required members motioning on it. Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) was the lone voice in the chamber to favor the bill.
“Typically, as Democrats, we would always need to have two Democrats on the committee in order to move forward with the bill,” said Malick Gaye, a policy analyst for Sen. Akbari. “Commerce and Labor is the committee that regulates pretty much everything having to do with the concept of industry in the State of Tennessee and only has one Democrat.”
Although believing that they need more liberal colleagues to work for a minimum wage increase, the issue is significantly less partisan than it is often depicted. Polling conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019 found that while 86 percent of Democratic voters support the minimum wage, it was more evenly split among Republican voters. With 43 percent of conservative Americans in favor of changing the rate, the polls found that 66 percent of all Americans favored the policy.
“The issue of raising the minimum wage in Tennessee comes more from a disconnect from the members of the General Assembly and the actual people of Tennessee,” Gaye said. “This type of information is sent to elected officials on a regular basis and it doesn’t necessarily just stop with raising the minimum wage. There are a number of policies that most people in Tennessee may brand as progressive, but on the grand scheme of things are poll winners, the majority of Tennesseans want them.”
Some of these policies that Gaye asserts are popular in Tennessee include Medicaid expansion, along with medicinal marijuana. But, if members of the state legislature are seeing this polling, what sort of conversations and debates are being hashed out at the Capitol?
“For the year 2021, we have heard nothing from [Republicans] in the state of Tennessee because of legislative procedures and policies that they can exploit to avoid hearing the actual bill,” Gaye said. “Because we have policies inside the Senate which require a motion and a second, we have never had the opportunity to, in good faith, debate the concept of a minimum wage increase inside the state Senate. There does seem to be a stonewall between us and the Republicans, where they’re not willing to move forward whenever it comes to minimum wage increases.”
With walls in place in Nashville, Memphis’ U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has introduced a bill of his own on Capitol Hill. Titled the Living Wage Now Act, it would immediately increase the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. It made its way into the House back in January after the provision was stripped from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
“In such a rich nation, it is immoral that the federal minimum wage puts a full-time worker in a family of two below the poverty line,” Congressman Cohen said in a press release accompanying the bill’s introduction. “It is well past time to raise the minimum to $15 – and not incrementally, but all at once. Families are struggling and some employees are rightly treating fair wages as a collective bargaining issue.”
The $7.75 increase has been described as “too aggressive” by Republican lawmakers over the years, and it appeared that a bipartisan bill would be nowhere in sight. However, recent reporting from the HuffPost has confirmed that Republican Sen. Mitt Romney and Democratic Sen. Krysten Sinema have come together to work together to raise the minimum wage, although neither senator specified by how much.
“I think it’s $11,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D.-W.Va.) told HuffPost when asked about the price-tag relating to the increase.
Sitting at a dollar less than Sen. Kyle and Rep. Chism’s proposal at the state level, and $4 below what many Democrats are calling for, it would be the first minimum wage increase to have Republican support in recent years.
Coupled with partisanship about the issue comes the racial factor. Although normally studied separately – such as the Pew Research Center poll showing overwhelming support among Black Americans (89 percent in favor) and a split among white ones (44 percent in favor) – Dr. Kris-Stella Trump, assistant professor of political science at the University of Memphis, said that the two share a close connection.
“That stat actually tracks really well with the rate of partisanship among African Americans, which are about 90 percent Democratic,” she said. “The interesting thing there is the low-income Republicans who are deviating from what we would expect. Republicans are disproportionately white, so...we see low-income whites voting more in favor of this. Of course, if you’re low-income, this would really help you and that’s where we see the economic self-interest kick in.”
Dr. Trump said that, although many issues are decided along party lines for the electorate, personal issues, such as the minimum wage, are often decided separately from a voter’s political belief.
“For specific political issues like this, most people will follow their party line,” she said. “That’s how a lot of public opinion works, not only on this issue, but a lot of things people take their cues from the party they identify with. There are few things that people have such strong opinions about where they have their opinions first then pick their party. For the vast majority of voters, they are more likely – without taking anything else into account – to agree with their party’s position.”
Of all Tennesseans in the workforce, 2.7 percent make less than or equal to the minimum wage according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is less than half the percentage of the highest, sitting at five percent, and about five times as much as the lowest, sitting at 0.5 percent. But Gaye believes there is a powerful influence on Republicans in the General Assembly.
“[Lobbyists] have a pretty big voice up here,” he said. “Tennessee is one the states with the highest proportion of lobbyists. We call the lobbyists up here the ‘third chamber’ outside of the House and the Senate. They wield an incredible amount of power.”
Lobbying is common when large policy debates are being held and come from both sides of the aisle. However, Dr. Trump noted that the benefits of policy give those who are against raising the minimum wage a larger motivation to voice their stance.
“Lobbyism is most effective among groups that have a lot of resources,” she said. “The second factor that affects how successfully a group can lobby is how concentrated it is and how each individual member of that group could benefit from the law changing or remaining the same.It tends to be harder to organize large groups where the benefits are diffuse and it’s easier to organize groups where the benefit is concentrated and each member gets a lot. In the case of a minimum wage increase, the benefits are very diffuse.”
Although it sits at the highest it has ever been, the minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, actually peaked in 1968 at $8.68 an hour. But, for the time being, it would appear that Tennessee and the General Assembly will continue to sit, without hope for open debate, at the $7.25 per hour rate that has been around for over a decade.
“It’s hard,” Sen. Akbari said about trying to form a bipartisan coalition around a minimum wage bill. “A lot of weeks it’s very frustrating, but you just have to keep pushing if you know it’s right.”
This chart compares the unadjusted minimum wage (blue) and the adjusted spending power in today's currency (red). Today's minimum wage is worth significantly less than in years prior.
Senator Raumesh Akbari is the only Democrat in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. Although fighting for a higher minimum wage in Tennessee along with her colleagues, any bill that finds its way to their desks fails without an open debate.