Minimum wage beneficiaries are highly organized, and they do have the necessary political clout to get Congress to price their low-skilled competition out of the market so they can demand higher wages.
Concerned about the devastating unemployment effects of the minimum wage, Republican politicians have long resisted increases in the minimum wage, but that makes no political sense. The reason is the beneficiaries of preventing increases in the minimum wage don’t vote Republican no matter what; where’s the political quid pro quo?
Higher-skilled and union workers are not the only beneficiaries of higher minimum wages. Among other beneficiaries are manufacturers who produce substitutes for workers. A recent example of this is Wawa’s experiment with customers using touch screens as substitutes for counter clerks. A customer at the convenience store selects his order from a touch screen. He takes a printed slip to the cashier to pay for it while it’s being filled. I imagine that soon the customer’s interaction with the cashier will be eliminated with a swipe of a credit card. Raising the minimum wage and other employment costs speeds up the automation process. I’m old enough to remember attendants at gasoline stations and theater ushers, who are virtually absent today. It’s not because today’s Americans like to smell gasoline fumes and stumble down the aisles in the dark to find their seat. The minimum wage law has eliminated such jobs.
Finally, there’s a nastier side to support for minimum wage laws, documented in my book “Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?” During South Africa’s apartheid era, racist labor unions were the country’s major supporters of minimum wage laws for blacks. Their stated intention was to protect white workers from having to compete with lower-wage black workers. Our nation’s first minimum wage law, the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, had racist motivation. Among the widespread racist sentiment was that of American Federation of Labor President William Green, who complained, “Colored labor is being sought to demoralize wage rates.”
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.