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A Fight for $15 minimum wage protest. (Photo: Milwaukee Teachers Education Association/cc/flickr)

'From Laughable to Inevitable': $15 Minimum Wage Hits Congress

Responding to grassroots labor movement, Democratic lawmakers show that they are ready to join the pro-worker fight

Lauren McCauley

Answering the call from millions of underpaid American workers who for years have pounded the pavement demanding a living wage, progressive lawmakers on Thursday unveiled legislation in both the House and Senate that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, "reversing the growing trend of income inequality between the top and everybody else," as stated by Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who made the $15 minimum wage a pillar of his 2016 presidential bid, said as he introduced the bill alongside Scott and others that he knows the idea "is a radical concept for our Republican friends, but we believe in the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, that if you work 40 hours a week or 50 hours a week you should not be living in poverty."

Under the Raise the Wage Act, which currently boasts 152 Congressional co-sponsors, the federal minimum wage would increase incrementally until reaching $15 an hour in 2024. Beyond that time, future increases would be adjusted with inflation, "to make sure the minimum wage will never again fall woefully out of date," as Scott said. The bill also eliminates the subminimum wage for tipped workers by gradually increasing it until it reaches parity with the federal minimum wage.

During the Thursday press conference, Sanders explained that it has been 10 years since Congress updated the federal minimum wage. "Since 1968," he said, "the minimum wage has lost more than 25 percent of its purchasing power as millions of America work longer hours for lower wages."

"The erosion of the federal minimum wage is the major reason why 43 million Americans are living in poverty," Sanders noted. "Healthcare costs are going up, childcare costs are going up, college costs are going up, housing cost are going up, but wages for millions of workers are not going up," he said.

"So, if you want to know why people all over this country are angry, why they are bitter, why they are disenchanted with their government, the truth is they are asking why it is that the people on top are doing fantastically well and yet their standard of living is going down," Sanders added.

The legislation was rolled out the same week that fast food workers, advocates with the organization Fight for $15, and other progressive groups held a series of protests targeting restaurant giant McDonald's, which they described as the "Donald Trump of corporations."

On Thursday, Fight for $15 and other advocates celebrated the new legislation and credited the national grassroots low-wage workers movement with pushing lawmakers to this point.

"Think back to five years ago: President Obama had yet to call for even a $9 an hour federal minimum wage, and the two members of Congress brave enough to call for $10.10 an hour were considered crazy," said Kansas City McDonald's worker and Fight for $15 leader Terrence Wise. "Then something crazier happened: 200 fast-food workers walked off their jobs in New York City, sparking a movement for $15 an hour and union rights that spread across the country."

"Twenty-two million Americans now have won raises, totaling $62 billion," Wise continued. "We've gone from laughable to inevitable. With this bill introduced today, it's clear that our Fight for $15 has set a new standard. Democrats across the board support $15 an hour, because they know it's the bare minimum workers like me need to support our families. We're going to keep striking, marching, and speaking out until every worker in the country wins $15 an hour and union rights."

Similarly, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), wrote on Twitter Thursday: "The #RaiseTheWage bill is a direct result of working moms and dads speaking out against a rigged economy. #FightFor15"

The Economic Policy Institute applauded the introduction of the legislation and encouraged Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act, saying it will "help make up for lost ground, directly or indirectly lifting wages for 41.5 million workers—29.2 percent of the wage-earning workforce."

Meanwhile, other progressive leaders and organizations chimed in with support for the #RaisetheWage bill.


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