Michigan has been thrust to the center of the battle for economic opportunities in the nation as Democrats and Republican fight over who has a better plan for helping working class people.
President Obama drew a line in the sand last week when he came to the state to raise the stakes on raising the minimum wage, and casting a Republican Congress as holding the nation hostage from accessing economic opportunities.
Speaking at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Obama said, “In America, we do not believe in opportunity just for the few. We believe that everybody should have a chance at success. And we believe our economy grows best not from the top down, but from the middle out, and from the bottom up.”
Utilizing themes that Democrats have always used to argue that their political tent is bigger than that of the Republicans, Obama said, “We want to make sure that no matter where you’re born, what circumstances, how you started out, what you look like, what your last name is, who you love, it doesn’t matter; you can succeed. That’s what we believe.”
He also said, “What matters is the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams and our willingness to take responsibility for ourselves. That’s what America is about. That’s the promise that this country is built on.”
To the students who attended the rally, Obama said, “And for the sake of your generation, we’ve got to make sure that that continues to be the case, that that’s not just something we’re nostalgic about, that that’s something that we project out into the future.”
He said the issue of the minimum wage means giving America a raise.
“Now, raising the minimum wage is not going to solve all of our economic challenges,” Obama said.
“The majority of folks who are working get paid more than the minimum wage. As Americans we understand that some people will earn more than others.”
To the applause of students and Democratic leaders who gathered for the rally, the president said, “Nobody who works full time should be raising their family in poverty, right? If you’re working, if you’re responsible, you should be able to pay the rent, pay the bills.”
He pointed out that there are countless families across the country who are living in poverty despite working full time.
“That’s what’s happening right now. All across the country, you can work full time on the minimum wage and still be in poverty,” Obama said.
“And that’s why, in the year since I first asked Congress to raise the minimum wage, we’ve seen six states on their own pass laws to raise their minimum wage.”
The president noted that two weeks ago Connecticut became the first state in the country to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
“You’ve got more states and counties and cities that are working to raise their minimum wage as we speak,” Obama said. “That includes your state legislators from Ann Arbor, Adam Zemke and Jeff Irwin, who are trying to raise it here in Michigan.”
However, Obama said fighting to raise wages is not just a job for organizers and elected officials.
“It’s also a job for business. It was here in Michigan 100 years ago that Henry Ford announced he was doubling his workers’ wages. And at the time, some of his fellow business leaders thought he had lost his mind. But Henry Ford understood it was going to be good for business,” Obama said.
“Not only did it boost productivity, not only did it reduce turnover, not only did it make employees more loyal to the company, but it meant that the workers could afford to buy the cars that they were building.”
The president made specific mention of Costco as a “hugely successful” company that took the same approach on minimum wage.
“And it’s not just big businesses; small businesses, too. In my State of the Union address, I called on more business leaders to boost their employees’ wages, give them a fair wage,” Obama said.
“And since then, you’ve seen businesses across the country — small ones, like an ice cream parlor in Florida, to a marketing agency in Georgia, to a pizzeria in St. Louis — they’ve all said, you know what, this is the right thing to do.”
The president also singled out clothing retailer Gap which he said decided to raise its base wages, and that benefited about 65,000 workers in the United States.
“It led me to go shopping at Gap. Some of you may have seen the very attractive sweaters that I purchased for my daughters. They have not worn them yet, so if they’re listening, make me feel good, just wear them one time,” Obama said to applause and laughter from the crowd.
Obama, who had lunch with Congressman Gary Peters at the Ann Arbor eatery Zingerman’s prior to his remarks, also commended the restaurant for looking out for its workers.
“Zingerman’s does not have as many workers as the Gap, obviously, but they try to do right by each and every one of them,” Obama said.
“You’ve got some big businesses who go to Washington to lobby for special treatment for themselves. So one of Zingerman’s owners, Paul Saginaw, flew to D.C. to lobby for his workers, to lobby for better treatment for workers through a higher minimum wage. That’s the kind of folks who are running Zingerman’s.”
The message Obama said small businesses like Zingerman’s and others are sending is that fair wages and higher profits are not mutually exclusive.
“They can go hand-in-hand. That’s what Henry Ford understood. And Paul opened Zingerman’s doors 32 years ago last month so he knows a little bit about business,” Obama said. “But he and business owners like him believe higher wages are good for the bottom line.”
The president also spoke about the executive order he issued requiring “federal contractors, folks who are doing business with the government, to pay their employees on new contracts a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour. It’s the right thing to do.”
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.