Several members of Congress, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), attended the rally, which preceded an afternoon hearing before the House Education and Labor subcommittee on labor standards.
Specter did not address the rally, opting instead to meet with groups of Pennsylvanians. He said he understood the push for a higher minimum wage but remained undecided.
"Could you live on $103 a week?" asked Carole Murray, 46, of Johnstown, Pa., citing housing and utility expenses.
Specter began to tell those crowded around him that he "couldn't maintain," when another questioner interrupted:
"The rent's not going down, water's not going down, gas is not going down. . . . I've heard the argument that increasing the minimum wage might increase the price of a hamburger a couple of cents, but I can't afford to go to McDonald's now."
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Augustus F. Hawkins (D., Calif.) is co-sponsor of a minimum-wage bill, along with Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.). Hawkins told the rally, "It's going to take a lot of fighting" to get the measure through.
Opponents say that an increase in the minimum wage would cost jobs. But Cardell Johnson, an organizer for the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, took issue with that.
"They're working for the corporate sector and not the people," Johnson said.
Supporters of an increase point out that the $6,968 paid annually to a full-time minimum wage earner is nearly $1,800 below the U.S. poverty level for a family of three.
"We've got to let them know that some of the money we're putting in their pockets could be put back in ours," said Harold Richard Jacobs, who has worked minimum-wage jobs for five years since he was laid off from his $9.75- an-hour job as a machinist in Erie.
At the House hearing, chaired by Rep. Austin J. Murphy (D., Pa.), workers talked grimly of trying to sustain families on low wages.
Rose Hummel of Johnstown told the panel that she made $5,867 last year
from her $3.85-an-hour job as a groom in a kennel.
"My life is made up of robbing Peter to pay Paul," she said, fighting back tears during her testimony. "I get tons of termination notices. They tell me that if I pay one month's bill, plus $10, they won't cut my utilities. But if I had the money to pay the $10 extra, I would have paid the bill in the first place. They don't know what it's like. They just don't know."