Obama Urges Increase In Minimum Wage At Rally

President Barack Obama speaks at Central Connecticut State University Wednesday afternoon. (RICHARD MESSINA)

NEW BRITAIN — In a campaign-style event, President Barack Obama made a rousing appeal for a higher minimum wage Wednesday at a packed pep rally at Central Connecticut State University, saying that it was "time to give America a raise."

That would help students, women, senior citizens and working-class Americans, said Obama, who asked the crowd to pressure Republicans in Congress to support his plan to raise the wage to $10.10 an hour. The minimum wage in Connecticut is currently $8.70, which is solidly above the national minimum of $7.25 an hour.

"Making work pay means wages and paychecks that let you support a family," Obama said during a 29-minute speech that was frequently interrupted by applause. "Nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty."

"There will always be airport workers, there will always be fast-food workers … people who work their tails off every day. People who work in nursing homes looking after your grandparents," Obama said. "If we are going to finish the job, Congress has to get on board."

Throughout his speech, Obama repeatedly singled out opposition in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, where a vote has not been scheduled.

"The problem is Republicans in Congress oppose raising the minimum wage,'' he said. "Maybe I should say I oppose raising the minimum wage, and they'd be for it."

"What happens if workers got a little money in their pockets? They spend a little more money,'' Obama said to a capacity crowd of 3,000, including many students. "Suddenly businesses have more customers, which means they have more profits. It's common sense."

The crowd inside the university gymnasium was far more supportive of Obama than Connecticut as a whole. The latest poll by Quinnipiac University shows Obama's approval ratings at their lowest level ever in the state. Only 45 percent of those polled approve of the job that Obama is doing, down from an all-time high of 71 percent in April 2009.

Some small businesses have argued for years against increasing the minimum wage, and that sentiment continued Wednesday. Nationally, about 5 percent of workers earn the minimum wage, and businesses have argued — supported by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office — that raising the wage would lead to cuts in jobs.

"Connecticut's economy has lagged the national economy in terms of job creation and growth, and it's highly unlikely that another big increase in labor costs will improve that condition," said Andrew Markowski, the Connecticut state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small businesses. "The best way for the president and Gov. Malloy to increase wages is to create the conditions under which workers are in higher demand. An arbitrary increase in labor costs will have the opposite effect. It will inflate labor costs all the way up the scale, and that will result in fewer jobs and higher consumer prices."

Joining the president at the rally were Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Democratic U.S. Reps. Jim Himes, Rosa DeLauro, Joe Courtney, Elizabeth Esty and John B. Larson. When Obama arrived Wednesday at Bradley International Airport, he was greeted by four New England governors who support the wage increase — Malloy, Peter Shumlin of Vermont, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. The entire group traveled to the rally in the president's motorcade.

"The governors of New England stand united,'' Malloy told the crowd before introducing Obama. "I will follow this president on the great policies he will put forward. But New England needs to lead on this issue.''

Surprise At The Barbershop

Before heading to the rally at Central, Obama made an unannounced stop at a New Britain restaurant and stunned a crowd of onlookers outside a local barber shop on Main Street. After shaking hands outside the barbershop in downtown New Britain, Obama ate lunch with Malloy and the other New England governors at Café Beauregard.

The White House reported that café owners Rob Chiovoloni and Alice Bruno, a husband-and-wife team, pay all their employees at least $10 an hour.

Gervais Barger of Plainville was seated in a chair at the Courtside Cuts Barber Shop on Main Street when he heard a commotion outside. He jumped out of his chair to snap a picture of the president.

"They started seeing the motorcade, and we came outside," Barger said as he stood outside — still wearing a barber's smock and without a coat on a cold day.

He said he had never seen a president before, "not in person."

Before Obama spoke, hundreds of students and a handful of protest groups gathered on Central's campus in New Britain. Among the few protest groups were environmentalists opposing the proposed Keystone Pipeline from Canada to Texas and others carrying signs that read, "I want jobs, not handouts."

Kevin Pilz, a junior, said he had a ticket and had been waiting in line since 8:30 a.m. "How often do you get to see the president?" he asked. "Even if you don't agree with everything he says, he's still the president."