On 4 April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law establishing a minimum wage of $15 an hour for workers in New York City, with significant boosts in the rest of the state. The same day, California Governor Jerry Brown approved a $15 minimum for his entire state.
The increases will be phased in over time, yet they nevertheless represent momentous advances.
These two state laws are the latest in a series of historic gains for what has become known as the ‘Fight for $15’ – a social-movement effort to more than double the current wage floor mandated by the federal government, which languishes at $7.25 an hour.
I repeat: the demand was not to bump up wages modestly. It was to more than double the national minimum.
That this audacious proposal has become a winning issue throughout the US – Seattle led the way in 2014, Los Angeles joined last year, and the infectious cause has rapidly spread elsewhere – speaks to a remarkable shift.
For the past 30 years, raising the minimum wage has been a nickel-and-dime affair. When I was 14 years old, in 1989, I started my first formal job. It involved showing up at a garden-supply store after school, watering plants, making sure the decorative gnomes were arranged in neat rows, and carrying 18-kilogram bags of manure from place to place. For this soul-enriching labour, I was paid $3.35 an hour. I worked at that shop for more than three years and received just one raise – when my bosses were compelled by federal law to observe a new minimum of $4.25 in 1991.
Since then, politicians have typically passed increases barely sufficient to keep up with inflation. Scarcely more than a decade ago, labour advocates campaigned in New York under the slogan ‘$5.15 is not enough!’
So when, in 2012, fast-food workers started calling for a $15 minimum wage, not only was this a crazy high number, it stood in stark contrast to a long history of timidity and incrementalism on the part of elected officials.
It is common to hear the remark that, in the past 40 years, progressives have been able to make gains around cultural demands but have lost on economic ones. With the Fight for $15, we have seen a rare and thrilling example of movements going from defence to offence – and winning.
Conservatives like to contend that those making the minimum wage are teenagers working part-time jobs for pocket money – which was basically my situation back at the Seed Shack. But in fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 89 per cent of minimum-wage workers are over the age of 20, and 45 per cent of them have some college education. More than a quarter of these employees have children.
At the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, a mother with two children working 40 hours per week, taking no vacation, will find herself at year’s end falling thousands of dollars below the poverty line.
Prodded by grassroots forces, politicians have begun to understand that this is simply an outrage. And, as the Fight for $15 has scored improbable wins, opportunists have abounded. When the new law was signed in New York, Hillary Clinton joined the governor on stage at the ceremony – despite the fact that she refuses to embrace the $15 demand as a national standard, opting instead for the half-measure of $12.
Organizers have been unfazed. Instead of listening to such ostensible allies – who continually prod them to settle for the feasible – those propelling the Fight for $15 have shown how social movements can change the boundaries of the politically possible. In this case, the technocrats have been left to marvel: stubborn and visionary got the goods.