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This isn't the first time Baltimore has debated the minimum wage

Andrew Dunn | August 1, 2016, 10:51AM
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Today's arguments repeat what interest groups said more than 50 years ago

Business owners warned the City Council that a new minimum wage would lead to economic disaster. Advocates said it would lift poor residents out of poverty.

The year was 1964. When the dust settled, officials agreed to require employers to pay their workers at least $1 an hour, the city's first minimum wage.

The current debate over a proposed $15 minimum wage strongly mirrors the one that played out half a century ago.

The 1964 bill and this year's version were much more ambitious when introduced.

In 1964, council members drafted legislation to raise the wage to $1.25 an hour. The Baltimore Sun reported that year that hundreds of representatives of small businesses “assailed” the proposal, saying it would “bring economic ruin.”

Supporters — including religious groups, labor unions and social justice advocates — said the city had a “humanitarian obligation” to set a minimum wage.

This summer's debate has been similar.

The pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee has warned that increasing the city minimum wage beyond the state level — currently $8.75, to increase by $10.10 by 2018 — would put Baltimore at a “competitive disadvantage.” No local jurisdiction in the state exceeds the state minimum wage.

And some small-business owners have said they would have to fire employees or close shop if the bill passes.

Meanwhile, religious leaders, labor unions and social justice groups are urging the council to pass the bill to lift Baltimoreans out of poverty and bring the city together.

In 1964, the Labor Committee cut the proposal to $1 an hour.

The 2016 version still calls for a $15 minimum, but City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young has pledged to knock that down to $11.50 an hour. A council committee has already delayed the proposed increase until 2022, two years later than the original bill provided.

Mayor Theodore McKeldin signed the $1 minimum wage bill into law in December 1964. Business interests opposed the proposal all the way to McKeldin's signing.

In 1965, state lawmakers made $1 an hour the minimum wage across Maryland. Supporters of this year's bill have said it could push the state to adopt a $15 minimum.

A key difference between then and now is the level of support from the council president.

In 1964, Council President Thomas D'Alesandro III pushed for the bill's passage. Young has said he can't support a minimum wage of more than $11.50 an hour.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she would sign the bill if it reaches her desk.

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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