Working Class America’s Nearly Decade Long Fight For $15: Is This Where it Ends?

Author: Luiza Cavalcante (Leftist) 

An unprecedented labor movement

On November 29th 2012, 100 fast food workers in New York City walked out of their jobs in a push for higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to form a union. The largest strike in the history of the fast food industry, it served as a springboard for a nationwide movement to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15- dubbed “The Fight for $15”. 

The movement grew quickly with similar strikes taking place in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Seattle. On July 29th, 2,200 workers- a 1000% increase in strikers in just 7 months- demonstrated in every city where fast-food workers had already striked with the addition of Flint and Kansas City.

The Fight For $15 soon encompassed more than just fast food workers. On April 15, 2015, tens of thousands of low wage workers walked out in over 200 cities in what labor organizers have named the largest protest by low-wage workers in American history. In the fight to raise the federal minimum wage floor, which hasn’t been adjusted since 2009 and amounts to a annual salary of just $15,00 a year, fast food workers were joined by Walmart workers, child-care aides, airport workers, adjunct professors, and labor activists.  

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, took note on how the Fight For $15 is distinct from other labor protests:

What is really significant about the Fight for $15 movement is – most labor disputes, look inside, they’re about a group of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement. In the Fight for $15, unions are helping to organize on a community basis, a group of workers who are on the fringe of the economy. It’s not about union members protecting themselves. It’s about moving other people up. This is the whole civil rights movement all over again.

The Fight for $15 has successfully raised the minimum wage to $15/hr in several areas. California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, and Maryland have passed laws to incrementally increase the minimum wage in a multi year time frame until it reaches $15/hr. In 2018 a $15 minimum wage took effect at Amazon, the nation’s fifth largest private employer

Studies of Seattle, whose minimum wage was raised to $16/hr in 2019, have shown clear benefits for workers and no decline in employment.

$15 federal minimum wage in the hands of VP 

The Biden Harris campaign ran on a promise to “Build Back Better,” and touted increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as a key component of their economic rescue plan.  In January the Biden administration proposed a COVID relief package including a provision for a $15 minimum wage. 

Democrats are attempting to pass the relief bill by way of a complex budget reconciliation process which while allowing for a simple majority vote, also allows Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth Macdough, to recommend doing away with certain provisions deemed extraneous items (in accordance to the Byrd Rule). The minimum wage increase is related to budget and can be deemed extraneous but since less significant budget related items have been ruled by a nonpartisan parliamentarian to be acceptable, supporters of the wage provision hoped MacDough would not advise against it.

Macdough ruled against the provision’s inclusion in the relief bill on Thursday evening, but the ruling is not terminal for the $15 minimum wage item. That is, if Senate Presiding Officer Kamala Harris, utilizes her power to ignore Macdough’s measure and make a path for an issue she has for quite some time insisted she supports. There is one issue though: The White House is indicating she will not. Should Harris refuse to disregard Macdough’s ruling she will be choosing to leave workers paid poverty wages and workers laboring in high-risk conditions waiting indefinitely for a federal wage increase they have been fighting for nearly a decade. 

$15 is nearly a decade too late

It has been almost a decade since the Fight for $15 started and 12 years since the federal minimum wage floor was last adjusted (the longest gap since 1938). If the minimum wage kept pace with productivity, it would be around $24 right now. While the minimum wage did increase along with productivity from 1938 to 1968, in the past few decades it hasn’t even kept up with inflation. 

A main argument in support of raising the minimum wage is that the wage should increase along with inflation, however in order to actually support workers the wage should increase with productivity. A minimum wage that rises with inflation restricts minimum wage workers to purchase the same amount of goods and services as time passes. However, a minimum wage that rises with productivity ensures that as workers are able to produce more goods and services per hour, they are able to buy more goods and services through time. 

We’ve seen well-documented positive social effects of a minimum wage increase, and the criticism that a higher minimum wage would lead to job loss doesn’t hold up: the demand for labor is inelastic enough that the minimum wage has almost no effect on employment rate

The next step in implementing a $15 minimum wage rests in the hands of Vice President Kamala Harris. Though $15 is far from enough and it’s several years too late, a refusal to take action in support of it would be a signal of enduring problems: the inability of democrats to back up verbal support of the working class with any substantial measures, the Biden administration’s failure to implement campaign promises at the soonest opportunity, and no strategy in sight after a 9 year struggle to increase the wages of 28 million Americans and lift hundreds of thousands out of poverty. 

*he All-Nite Images from NY, NY, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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