By MELISSA HAYES - STATE HOUSE BUREAU
EAST ORANGE — Two Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate joined their party’s gubernatorial nominee and union leaders on Wednesday to kick off a statewide campaign to raise the minimum wage.
“You will hear all kinds of arguments about why New Jersey can’t elevate the minimum wage, said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. “It’s a job killer. Businesses will leave the state. A host of different arguments. But we continue in New Jersey to provide tax breaks for millionaires, corporate tax incentives for businesses. But we will turn our backs on the lowest wage earners in this state?”
Oliver stood opposite Newark Mayor Cory Booker, one of three fellow Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to seek the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s seat, at the New Hope Baptist Church. State Sen. Barbara Buono, who is challenging Governor Christie in the November gubernatorial election, joined them in rallying support for a ballot question on an amendment to the state constitution raising the minimum wage by $1 to $8.25 an hour. Future annual increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.
“You look all around this region and poor working people are having to pay more for rent, more for food, more for gas, more for transportation, more for tuition,” Booker said. “All of these costs going up, but the minimum wage has stayed the same.”
The “Raise the Wage” campaign kickoff was hosted by Working Families United for New Jersey Inc., a coalition of unions opposed to Christie’s efforts to change collective-bargaining rules and reduce benefits for public employees.
Charles Hall Jr., the chairman of Working Families, said if voters approve the constitutional amendment in November, more than 400,000 New Jerseyans would see an increase in their wages. The minimum wage was last increased in 2009, when it rose 10 cents to the current rate.
Hall said the average worker would see a $2,000 increase.
Although there was no mention of the upcoming Senate primary or Buono’s bid to unseat Christie, the event wasn’t free of politics. All three took shots at Christie for conditionally vetoing a Democratic bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 with guaranteed annual increases tied to inflation. Christie countered with a proposal calling for a $1 increase to be phased in over three years, and said he also would restore a tax credit for low-income workers that he cut from his 2010-11 budget.
The Legislature responded by passing a resolution in February to put the minimum-wage question to voters. Christie does not have the power to veto resolutions.
“People are struggling, and by this governor vetoing a minimum-wage increase and tying it to a cost of living, he is in essence saying that these economic concerns are not his concerns,” she said. “And we are here today joined together to tell him he is dead wrong, dead wrong.”
Christie’s campaign dismissed her remark as “misleading.”
“The governor offered a responsible proposal to increase the minimum wage in a manner that protects our economic progress, jobs for our families and that offered direct relief to working families,” said Kevin Roberts, a campaign spokesman.
Oliver noted that 77 percent of voters surveyed in a Rutgers Eagleton Poll released Monday said they support increasing the minimum wage. Only 18 percent said they opposed the increase.
Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, D-Essex, the labor union officer for Local 68 Operating Engineers, called on attendees to help educate fellow voters.
“Let’s roll up our sleeves. Let’s put our differences aside,” he said. “This is one question that can unite New Jerseyans doing the right thing, doing the just thing, and that’s raising the minimum wage.”