Guest column/Bipartisanship would benefit Eastern Ohioans

Eastern Ohioans have always worked hard and taken responsibility. But for too long, those in Jefferson and Belmont counties and those across the region have been working harder than ever and barely getting by. That’s why we must grow our economy by growing the middle class. By raising the federal minimum wage, extending emergency unemployment insurance, training workers for high-growth industries and passing my bipartisan bill to create a network of manufacturing innovation hubs, we can focus our attention on what matters: Keeping America strong and vibrant for the next generation. And that starts with shoring up the middle class and ensuring the opportunity for all Ohioans to be a part of it. That is, after all, the foundation on which America’s economic might stands.

First, I’m fighting to make sure Ohioans get a raise. Those who work hard should be able to take care of their families. But in our state, working full time in a minimum wage job pays about $16,000 per year – which isn’t much to live on when you’re trying to put food on the table, fill your gas tank, send your children to school and provide a safe place for them to live.

Congress can strengthen the administration’s executive order to raise the minimum wage for employees of new federal contracts by passing the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the minimum wage for all Americans. This legislation, which I co-sponsored, would give nearly 1.3 million Ohioans a raise by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its current $7.25 – in three steps of 95 cents – then provide for automatic annual increases linked to changes in the cost of living. The bill would also gradually raise the minimum wage for tipped workers – which currently stands at just $2.13 an hour – for the first time in more than 20 years, to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. Ensuring a fair wage is good for middle class families and good for our economy.

Ohioans of all backgrounds, from small towns and major cities, are responsible and want to succeed. But many are still struggling after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. At a time when our economy is still recovering, extending emergency unemployment insurance would help 128,000 hardworking Ohioans pay the bills, heat their homes and put food on the table while they search for new jobs. It’s unacceptable to leave tens of thousands of Ohioans with no economic lifeboat. Extending unemployment benefits is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

With too many Ohioans unable to find work, we should also be doing all that we can to ensure that our workers are qualified to fill Ohio jobs. Since 2007, I’ve convened more than 215 roundtables across Ohio’s 88 counties, listening to community and business leaders, workers and entrepreneurs on ways to strengthen our economy. A theme that developed early on was that despite high unemployment, employers are having a hard time finding workers with the skills necessary to fill the available jobs. As a result, job openings in high-growth industries, like health care, clean energy and biosciences, and even the manufacturing sector, are going unfilled.

That’s why I introduced the Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success Act, which would create partnerships between educators, industry and work force training boards to ensure that workers have the right skills to get hired in high-tech, emerging industries with good-paying jobs. If we’re going to attract new employers, we need to ensure that local work force development efforts support the needs of local industries. That’s what this bill does. We can close the skills gap by going directly to the source of Ohio’s economic might: our skilled workers and innovative businesses.

Many of you may have heard the president call out one of our great cities -Youngstown – in his speech on Jan. 28. That’s because Youngstown has a first-of-its-kind manufacturing innovation institute, and is being used as a model for the creation of a National Network of Manufacturing Innovation. Recently, I urged my colleagues to pass the Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act. This bipartisan legislation – which was endorsed by the Senate manufacturing Caucus – would establish a Network for Manufacturing Innovation and create thousands of high paying, high-tech manufacturing jobs.

This network will retain U.S. leadership in a range of next-generation technologies, capitalize on our investment in basic research and create thousands of high pay, high tech manufacturing jobs. By leveraging existing infrastructure and pockets of innovation across the country, NNMI provides small businesses with access to the tools and expertise needed to compete in the global economy. This will create regional magnets for cutting-edge research, talented students, and additional investments. Collaboration is critical for our success – and an NNMI would provide small businesses and research institutions access to the tools and expertise needed to compete in the global economy. And it can also spur the creation of regional hubs of advanced manufacturing throughout the U.S.

I am working with my colleagues to lay the groundwork for opportunities we can take to work together on common sense efforts that create jobs, promote economic development and improve the lives of all Americans. Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t be fighting each other; we should be fighting for the middle class.

We have a chance to set aside partisan differences and remember who we’re fighting for. And if we do that, we might even see bipartisanship emerge as an unintended – but certainly welcome – side effect to the benefit of Eastern Ohioans.

(Brown, a Democrat, represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate.)