By Guy Marzorati

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, pictured in 2013. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, pictured in 2013. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama Tuesday night used his State of the Union address to declare his support for a bill by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) to raise the federal minimum wage.

The legislation, aptly designated HR1010, the Fair Minimum Wage Act, would raise the federal minimum to $10.10 after two years.

“We know that employers will pay the least amount they have to pay,” the 20-term House veteran said in an interview with KQED. “That’s why we have a minimum wage, because we decided we weren’t going to have slave wages in this country.”

The Republican majority in the House has opposed the idea as bad for business. Dozens of Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors of Miller’s bill, and the party has signaled it intends to highlight the issue as part of a larger discussion of wealth inequality during this year’s election campaign. And the public? Polls show strong support for some kind of raise.

A recent poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal shows 63 percent support for the increase. The party breakdown: 77 percent of Democrats surveyed said they backed the raise, compared with 47 percent of Republicans. The poll also found that 43 percent of respondents would support an increase to $12.50 an hour; 28 percent said they’d back a minimum wage raise to $15 an hour — the level that a nationwide movement to raise pay for fast-food workers is pushing for.

The federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In the Bay Area, San Francisco and San Jose have already set minimum wages above $10 an hour, and the statewide minimum wage is set to rise to $9 a hour on July 1 and $10 in 2016.

In the KQED interview, Miller dismissed criticism from Republicans in Congress that raising the federal minimum wage will lead to a widespread loss of jobs.

“It just sticks in their gut that they would have to do this,” he said. “They don’t believe in government taking this kind of action. They think it should be just left up to employers to pay whatever they want to pay.”

Miller also noted that the movement to raise minimum wages is going ahead, with or without Congress.

“Mayors and communities and states and citizens are taking this to the ballot, they’re taking it to the city council, they’re raising the minimum wage in the legislature,” Miller said. “Congress is way behind the curve on these items that the public knows are important.”

Some on the left argue that a minimum wage is not truly a living wage, one that would keep pace with basic needs like food, shelter and clothing.

“Really, quite frankly we need a living wage,” Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee says. But she adds that “$10.10 an hour is a great first step.”

The effort to pass HR1010 may be one of Miller’s final fights in Congress. First elected in 1974, Miller announced earlier this month he won’t seek re-election this fall.

“For 40 years, I’ve been part of this debate,” he says. “I’m excited for this opportunity on minimum wage, it’s great.”

Retiring Rep. George Miller Takes on Fight for Higher Minimum Wage 29 January,2014KQED News Staff

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