$15/hour minimum wage drive ignited

By MICHAEL SCHREIBER

A grassroots movement to achieve a significant increase of the minimum wage, to $15 an hour, is gaining momentum around the United States. The urgency of a higher minimum wage is shown by the fact that the number of “working poor” in the U.S. now exceeds 47 million people.

“People are busting their butts now, working two or three jobs and they’re not making it,” Andrea Bell, an organizer with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, which has helped to organize fast-food workers, told the San Francisco Chronicle (March 16, 2014). “This [$15 an hour] would help.”

The real value of the federal minimum wage has fallen by close to 30 percent during the last 40 years. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated in 2013 that if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since its peak in 1968, it would now be $10.75 an hour. And if the minimum wage had grown along with workers’ productivity, it would be as high as $17.19 today.

Congress is balking over Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. A recent article in the Washington Post (Jan. 4, 2014), basing itself on a study by University of Massachusetts at Amherst economist Arindrajit Dube, suggests that a raise to $10.10 alone would be sufficient to reduce the number of people living in poverty nationwide by 4.6 million.

Activists around the country, however, have called for $15 an hour as the minimum base rate that could begin to make significant changes in the standard of living of the working poor. “Fifteen dollars—now!” has been the demand at countless marches and “mike-check” rallies at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores in hundreds of cities during the last three years.

Recent campaigns have been inspired by the November ballot victory in SeaTac, Washington, which raised the minimum wage there to $15. And new ballot initiatives for $15 an hour have now been launched in Seattle and San Francisco.

On April 7, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and other activists, including the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, filed papers to place the “Minimum Wage Act of 2014” on San Francisco’s November ballot. The current base rate in the city is $10.74, already the highest of any large city in the country; $15 would represent an additional raise of roughly 40 percent.

Under the proposal, San Francisco companies with more than 100 employees would have until 2016 to raise wages to $15 an hour, but they must lift wages to $13 an hour by next January. Businesses with fewer than 100 employees have until 2017 to raise wages to $15 an hour, but must raise them to $13 an hour by 2015 and $14 by 2016. Polls show that the proposal has overwhelming support among the electorate in San Francisco—which has the highest cost of living of any sizable U.S. city and the fastest growing gap between rich and poor.

In Seattle, activists in the “15 Now” coalition are also working to put a $15/hour wage ordinance onto the Nov. 4 municipal ballot. At least 20,000 valid signatures must be submitted in June in order to qualify, and activists will be mobilizing to collect a full 50,000. A conference will take place on April 26 to kick off the campaign, under the slogan “Onto the ballot, into the streets!”

The decision to file the signatures in June will depend on whether or not the city council has already passed a $15 minimum wage measure without significant loopholes. Kshama Sawant, a member of Socialist Alternative who was elected to Seattle’s city council last November, is making the $15 wage one of her major concerns.

Big business interests in Seattle, however, have been pushing back against the proposed measure—calling for exemptions such as counting the money that their employees receive in tips as part of the $15 wage. In many cases, deducting tips from wages would result in no raise at all for hard-pressed employees. Activists in “15 Now” have been firm in stating that, while it might be reasonable to grant subsidies to some authentic small businesses to offset the increased wages they would be paying, the base wage level of $15 must remain for all enterprises.

Last month in Chicago, voters approved by an 87% to 13% margin a non-binding referendum expressing broad support for a $15 minimum wage at large businesses in the city.  The election results have sent a strong message to city council, which will be considering a minimum wage measure in upcoming weeks. At the same time, the Richmond, Calif., city council approved raising the minimum wage locally to $12.30 by 2017. New York and San Diego are among other cities that are considering hikes in the minimum wage, while the SEIU and other forces in Oakland have set out to collect 50,000 signatures to obtain a city minimum wage of $12.25 an hour.

On the state level, Connecticut recently approved a bill to raise its minimum wage to Obama’s goal of $10.10 an hour—which will boost pay for 227,000 workers in the state, roughly 15 percent of the state’s workforce. Maryland legislators have followed suit, although their bill contains exemptions for many employers. Massachusetts and Hawaii are also considering minimum-wage increases.

The readiness of many city and state officials to accept at least modest raises in minimum wage rates can be explained in large part by their perceived need to cut down on spiraling public assistance payments to the working poor. In California, for example, researchers from the University of California and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign estimated that low-paid fast-food workers cost taxpayers $717 million a year in state and federal assistance.

Capitalist politicians also sense that a rise in the minimum wage has broad popular support. Nationally, 69 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, according to a March poll by Bloomberg news. For activists demanding a more equitable $15 an hour, that should be a promising start.

But there is far more work to be done, and the goal cannot be achieved nationwide solely through municipal ballot measures or by “mike-check” rallies and flash occupations—however valuable and inspiring such local efforts might be. Winning the demand for $15 nationwide will take a concerted campaign by the entire labor movement and its allies. It must be seen as part of a massive drive to organize low-wage workers throughout the country into a fighting trade-union movement.

A portrait of minimum wage workers

PHILADELPHIA—According to a study conducted last year by the Urban League, service workers at Philadelphia International Airport (baggage handlers, aircraft cleaners, wheelchair attendants, etc.) generally earn about $7.85 an hour—including tips. Skycaps earn $3.90 an hour as a basic wage (some get even less), while wheelchair attendants receive $5.76 (tips boost their earnings to about $6.50). Many have to work second jobs, if they can find them, in order to make ends meet.

Many of their jobs were once performed by airline employees, but in recent years the airlines have shed these workers in their drive to lower labor costs and substantially raise their profits. These jobs have now been given to private contractors who pay substandard wages and no benefits.

Wheelchair attendant Tina Russell told Urban League interviewers: “My employer, Prime Flight, pays me $6 per hour, and sometimes I get tips from the passengers. But a lot of times I get no tips at all. I make $325 every two weeks. And I pay $650 per month in rent. It’s not hard to do the math: by the end of the month, I have nothing left. And I haven’t even started paying my bills.

“I have to borrow $20 here, $20 there. I get $300 in food stamps. But I’m always broke. I don’t have enough money to eat. How can someone who works full-time in the richest country go hungry?” — M.S.