Millions of Americans received a raise on January 1st, and they have fast-food workers and union organizers to thank. Although the federal minimum wage has not increased in over a decade and remains a paltry $7.25 per hour, the movement known as Fight for $15 has moved the needle at the state and municipal level.
In seven states, the New Year increases are the result of laws on the books to gradually step up to a $15 minimum wage. Other states index minimum wage increases to the cost of living. If the federal minimum wage had kept up with inflation over the last 50 years, it would now be $12 per hour.
The Fight for $15
It was 2012, while the US was recovering from the Great Recession, when fast-food workers in New York City, with the support of New York Communities for Change and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), organized the first strike for a $15 minimum wage. SEIU became the primary backer of future battles, winning a $15 wage in the city of SeaTac, the home of Seattle’s airport, in 2014. As Harold Myerson details in the American Prospect, Seattle became the first major city to adopt the standard.
Seen as a “pie-in-the-sky” demand in the campaign’s early years, the $15 minimum wage is now central to the Democratic Party platform. The US House of Representatives passed a $15 minimum wage bill in 2019, but it stalled in the Republican-led Senate. President-elect Joe Biden has made the $15 wage—and elimination of sub-minimum wages paid to tipped workers and disabled workers—central to his COVID-19 recovery package.
SEIU has been less successful in leveraging Fight for $15 movement wins into new members, an issue that has caused some internal strife. But the movement has increased the union’s political strength.
Recent Wage Increases
In the new year, New Mexico saw the largest increase: $1.50, making the state’s minimum wage $10.50 per hour. The smallest increase was eight cents in Minnesota. California now has the highest minimum wage, $14.00 per hour, followed by Washington State ($13.69) and Massachusetts ($13.50). Some cities also increased their minimum wage, with California communities leading the charge; many now have a minimum wage above $15, as do Seattle and neighboring SeaTac. The District of Columbia and New York City also have raised their minimum wage to $15.
In November, Florida joined California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia in enacting a $15 statewide minimum wage that will be phased in over the next several years. Florida voters bypassed their Republican legislature with a ballot initiative that gained the support of 61 percent of voters, becoming the first state to vote to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour at the ballot box. The campaign was led by Florida for a Fair Wage. The overwhelming vote in a “red” state shows that providing workers with a livable wage has widespread support.
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Although some in the business community insist that a $15 wage will result in widespread job losses and the closure of small businesses, the data suggest otherwise. A 2019 study from the Center on Wage and Unemployment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that a $15 federal minimum wage “will not create job loss in low-wage states” and “will offer more opportunities for workers and their families to lift themselves out of poverty.”
Many economists agree. An increase in the minimum wage provides low-income working Americans with more cash that can be spent on consumer goods, increasing economic activity in local communities and leading to stronger businesses and more jobs. Additionally, raising the minimum wage reduces the need for low-wage workers to rely on public benefits. Currently, US taxpayers are subsidizing employers to the tune of $107 billion to enable their workers to meet basic household needs.
Gender and Racial Justice
Although only about two percent of the workforce (1.8 million workers) earn minimum wage (or less), 23 million would be affected by raising the federal minimum wage to $15. Women and people of color comprise the majority of these workers, and data show that increases in real earnings correlate strongly with raising the minimum wage.
“Raising the minimum wage is one of the most powerful tools Black and brown workers have to really close the Black and brown wage gap and rebuild our communities in the wake of the pandemic,’’ Allyn Umel, organizing director for Fight for $15, tells USA Today.
Karesha Manns is a McDonald’s worker in Memphis, Tennessee, who joined 1,000 fellow workers in 15 cities on Friday, January 15th, in a labor action to draw attention to the cause and demand immediate action by the Biden administration. Demonstrating on what would have been Martin Luther King’s 92nd birthday, Manns, in a column in Business Insider, draws a straight line to the civil rights movement, noting that King’s “fight for racial and economic justice—including a fair, livable wage for all working people—didn’t end with his death. It continues today.”
Manns writes, “I make just $10 an hour working at McDonald’s in Memphis, and it’s nowhere near enough to cover basic necessities every month for me and my baby daughter. I haven’t even been able to furnish my apartment, because every cent of every paycheck has to go towards keeping a roof over our heads and putting food on the table.”
With Democrats in control of Congress, raising the federal minimum wage will be a priority. But the Senate filibuster still stands in the way. Recent polling shows that 72 percent of all adults and 62 percent of Republicans support an increase. That’s up from 66 percent prior to COVID-19. With Americans aware of the sacrifices low-wage workers have made over the last year, and a strong movement for racial and economic justice, US fast-food workers may finally see Congress make good on their demand to “raise the wage.”—Karen Kahn