Fight for $15 in '15

2015 should be a big year for the "Fight for $15," a national movement to turn low-wage jobs into "living wage" jobs that pay enough to lift workers out of poverty.(Photo: BobboSphere/Flickr)

Fight for $15 in '15

Here’s one way to bypass the political gridlock in Washington and help struggling workers.

Looking for some good news on the job front?

This should be a big year for the "Fight for $15," a national movement to turn low-wage jobs into "living wage" jobs that pay enough to lift workers out of poverty.

The movement got a big push in December when pro-living wage demonstrations were simultaneously held in nearly 200 cities around the country. It started with fast-food workers but has expanded to include people in a broad range of low-wage occupations.

One of the targets of the movement is President Barack Obama, whom organizers are calling on to issue a "good jobs executive order."

Such an order would, at a minimum, give preference to bidders on government contractors that pay a living wage, provide benefits, and allow collective bargaining. It would eliminate the last vestiges of the federal government's ignominious status as the nation's leading low-wage employer.

Obama already took one big step forward last year when he signed an executive order that set the minimum wage for federal government contractors at $10.10 an hour. That order went into effect on the first of the year.

But a wage-earner with a child still can't make ends meet with a $10.10-an-hour job. The living wage calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Urban Studies finds that a parent with one child would need a full-time job paying $19 an hour in Atlanta, $17.45 an hour in St. Louis, and a whopping $26 an hour in San Francisco to meet basic living expenses.

As Congress has dragged its feet on raising the federal minimum, local communities have led the way in passing living wage ordinances for government contractors.

In fact, 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the nation's first, which was passed in Baltimore in 1994. Since then, more than 140 municipalities have followed suit.

According to a 2013 paper by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, almost one in five Americans lives in a community covered by a living wage ordinance.

"The experience of the jurisdictions that have passed living wage ordinances is that they raise wages and boost local economies," the report's authors concluded.

Predictions that raising wages for contractor employees would lead to higher taxes or discourage bidders from competing for contracts simply haven't come true, they added. Nor is there any evidence that paying workers decently contributed to job losses.

This past fall, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed the Big Apple's living wage mandate beyond direct government contracting to include the commercial tenants of city-subsidized properties. That expanded a law that previously directly affected about 1,200 workers to one that impacted nearly 18,000.

"Every tool counts," de Blasio told The New York Times. "If we reach 18,000 families with this tool and get them to a decent standard of living, that's a game-changer for those families."

It's one of the few tools that elected officials will have in the near term to help a working class whose wages have continued to stagnate even as the economy has grown.

With Republicans controlling both house of Congress, there's little hope for federal legislation that would benefit low-wage workers. Raising the federal minimum wage, increasing funding for federal job-creation programs, and lowering barriers to collective bargaining will all have to wait.

But workers can keep up the pressure to get more states and municipalities -- and ultimately the federal government -- to follow the lead of cities like Baltimore to ensure that your tax dollars support jobs that can lift families out of poverty and enable them to be self-sufficient.

It's one way to bypass the political gridlock in Washington and make a positive difference in the lives of struggling workers.

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This column was distributed by OtherWords.