By Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON — The bus had a cameo appearance at best, but a group of citizens who support raising the minimum wage were pleased Wednesday that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had signed a bill increasing those wages in West Virginia.
The rally had been announced as an opportunity for West Virginians to view the 45-foot-long, 16-ton traveling billboard on the side of a recreational vehicle. It was said to be part of a “Give America a Raise” bus campaign. At the beginning of the event, West Virginia Citizen Action Group Director Gary Zuckett announced that the bus had been traveling from “Maine to Washington, D.C., and is making a stop here in Charleston.”
The appearance was short-lived, however. When six people got off the bus and joined the other 15 individuals at the rally location beside the Kanawha River, it was only moments before two uniformed Capitol police officers arrived to tell the driver he had to move the bus. As event organizers ran after the police to discuss the matter, they met just below the Capitol steps. While a policeman explained to Zuckett and another organizer that “there’s no parking there except for the legislature,” the pair insisted that they had a permit for the bus to be there.
Police assured the two that they did not have a permit to park on Kanawha Boulevard. Zuckett returned to preside over the rally, assuring those in attendance that “the bus will be right back. There’s been a misunderstanding and it is going around the block. It will be right back.”
The bus, however, did not return until the event ended when it pulled up briefly to reload the six passengers. It then immediately departed the scene. Later, an event organizer claimed the group had “misunderstood” where the bus could park and it had been moved to “a different street.” The bus was said to be on an 11-state tour sponsored by Americans United for Change.
Meanwhile, Zuckett and others praised Tomblin for signing the bill that increases the state minimum wage. They called him “a champion for ordinary working people.”
The Rev. Jeff Allen of the West Virginia Council of Churches appeared to echo the theme of the day, praising Tomblin and saying the bill became law “by the grace of God.” He advised listeners to turn to Luke 10:7 and I Timothy 5:18 to verify that the governor and legislature had “done the right thing” in passing the bill.
Brooke Drake, a former restaurant server, spoke of the hardships on minimum wage employees “to feed their families and pay their bills.” She said more social programs are not the answer, but “providing a living wage is necessary.”
Drake asked, “How can people learn skills to better themselves when they are having to work all the time just to put food on the table?”
Jeni Burns, owner of a Charleston catering service, said, “The cycle of poverty needs to be abolished in West Virginia.”
Although the announcement of the rally said proponents would demand that West Virginia’s Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito support a federal minimum wage increase, her name was not mentioned during the rally. Speakers like Kenny Perdue of the state AFL/CIO did say, however, that they expect U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, to take a leadership role in increasing the federal wage level. Speakers at the rally said the federal minimum wage should be increased to $10.10 per hour.
Perdue noted that opponents of the state increase “had 60 days during the legislative session to fight the bill” but used what he called “the last few days to come up with every argument in the world why the governor should not sign it.”
Tomblin has said that, although he had some technical problems with the bill, those can be corrected in a future special session of the legislature.
The West Virginia bill will raise the minimum wage to $8 an hour next Jan. 1, and to $8.75 in 2016.