What once was considered “pie in the sky” is slowly becoming law. In New York, state legislators just agreed to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, with the full effect beginning in New York City by December 2018. California just passed a compromise raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. New Jersey and the District are planning to move similar laws. After New York and California, nearly 1 in 5 (18 percent) in the U.S. workforce will be on the path to $15 an hour.
How did this reform go from being scorned as “extreme” to being enacted? Consensus politicians don’t champion it. Pundits and chattering heads tend to ignore it. Many liberal economists deride it as too radical. The idea moved only because workers and allies organized and demanded the change.
Three years ago, fast-food workers walked off the job in what began the “fight for $15 and a union.” With the federal government as the largest low-wage employer, federal contract workers demonstrated repeatedly outside the Pentagon, Congress and the White House, demanding executive action under the banner of a “Good Jobs Nation.”
Progressive politicians added their voices. In Seattle, Kshama Sawant, an engineer and economist running under the banner of Socialist Alternative party, won a seat on the city council in 2013. She made a $15 minimum wage a centerpiece of her campaign and pushed it when in office. The Service Employees International Union, one of America’s largest unions; business leaders such as Nick Hanauer; and political leaders such as Seattle Mayor Ed Murray helped build the coalition needed to get it done. Now wages in Seattle are headed to $15. And in SeaTac, the airport district that passed a $15 minimum wage in a referendum, the wage is in effect now.
In New York, insurgent mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio made raising the minimum wage central to his campaign. He and the Working Families Party joined with striking low-wage workers, labor and community groups, and city council members. Zephyr Teachout’s surprisingly strong challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) put pressure on him to act.
At the national level, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) joined with demonstrating contract workers. The CPC lobbied President Obama to use his executive power to raise wages for federal contract workers. The president responded with three historic executive orders, lifting the minimum wage for contract workers to $10.10, cracking down on wage theft and other workplace violations, and extending paid leave to contract employees.
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Obstacles remain. Today, 42 percent of American workers earn less than $15 an hour. And the right to a union has been trampled by relentless and at times lawless corporate resistance. The Republican leadership in Congress refuses even to allow a vote on raising the national minimum wage that, at $7.25 an hour, means full-time workers can’t even raise their families out of poverty.
But now Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, says that “the Fight for $15 launched by underpaid workers has changed the nation’s economic trajectory, beginning to reverse decades of wage inequality.”
Contrary to the business lobby, an analysis by economists at the University of California at Berkeley shows that New York’s increases will not lead to job losses. The higher wages will generate billions in new consumer spending; the increased sales will offset the costs to businesses. In Seattle, the unemployment rate reached an eight-year low after the initial increases in the minimum wage last year.
This movement continues to build. The Fight for $15 and Good Jobs Nation initiatives will ratchet up their walkouts and demonstrations this month. On Monday, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders issued a call for “moral action on the economy.” They will press presidential candidates to pledge to “issue an executive order to make sure taxpayer dollars reward ‘model employers’ that pay a living wage of at least $15 an hour, provide decent benefits and allow workers to organize without retaliation.” As Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, summarized: “This election is fundamentally about whether the next president is willing to take transformative executive action to close the gap between the wealthy and workers.”
Sanders has made $15 and a union a centerpiece of his campaign. He has urged Obama to take executive action and surely will sign the pledge. Hillary Clinton supports raising the minimum wage to $12.50, allowing cities to go higher. Her position on the pledge is unknown. The Republican candidates — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — oppose raising the minimum wage and would likely repeal Obama’s executive orders on low-wage contract workers if elected.
With inequality reaching record extremes, childhood poverty the worst in the industrial world and more Americans struggling simply to stay afloat, this country is desperately in need of bold reform. Yet bold ideas are repeatedly mocked as unrealistic and blocked by entrenched interests and conservative politicians. What the activists and low-wage workers have shown with their fight for $15 is that the changes we need will come if people organize and force them. Many commentators deride Sanders’s call for a political revolution, but that may be the most realistic idea of them all.