Last week’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report brought the negative effects of a proposed minimum wage hike into sharp focus. The CBO found that while wages would, by definition, increase for some employees, up to a million of our most vulnerable workers could lose their jobs. For all the bluster about free-market advocates being “anti-worker,” I can’t imagine a more anti-worker effect to a policy than the one you would see with a minimum wage increase. After all, what could be worse for a laborer than having his or her job taken away?
That’s what makes support for a minimum wage increase from unions and big business seem so odd at first glance. Why would unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) support a change of policy that would hurt hundreds of thousands of Americans? Why would some businesses want to increase the cost of labor?
A few reasons stand out.
For starters, artificially raising the cost of non-union labor can make union labor more attractive. As the Cato Institute noted more than a decade ago:
Unions are labor cartels that attempt to restrict the supply of workers entering given occupations. Since non-union labor is priced below the cartelized price of union labor, it is an attractive substitute for union workers. Because unionization of all potential competition to the cartel is impossible due to the high policing costs that would be involved, unions resort to the minimum wage. By artificially increasing the wage rate of lower skilled workers — who could substitute for union workers — the minimum wage increase the demand for union workers and hence their wage rates.
Hypothetically speaking, if the labor of an entry-level employee with no experience is worth $7.50 per hour in the open market but the law requires he be paid $15 per hour, trained union labor costing $20 per hour looks considerably more attractive. By harming non-union labor, unions are able to help themselves.
Moreover, some large businesses have supported increasing the minimum wage because it would harm their competition. Costco, for instance, supports raising the minimum wage today at least in part because the entry-level wage for a Costco employee is $11.50, more than $4 per hour above the federal minimum. At a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour, Costco’s business model would remain largely unaffected.
But you know who would be affected by the change in the law? Businesses, large and small, whose profit margins are far narrower. That’s especially true of small businesses in our communities already suffering under a mountain of tax and regulatory burdens in a difficult economy.
Yes, there are, no doubt, some in both the business and labor camps who in good faith might think a minimum wage increase won’t hurt our vulnerable poor. But labor and business leadership know better, and the economics are as clear as the incentives.