$15 wage movement makes gains

By ANN MONTAGUE

 June was a good month for the fight for a $15 minimum wage. On June 13, Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country, saw the mayor sign the bill passed by the city council that raised the minimum wage from $9 to $15 over the next five years. This will keep the city ahead of the statewide minimum wage, which was raised to $10 in 2016.

The California State Assembly is now considering raising it to $13 in 2017. Last November, the people of San Francisco voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2018. And not to be outdone, a nearby city, Emeryville, raised its minimum wage to $16 by 2019. On June 2, its city council unanimously passed the ordinance, which will be adjusted annually for inflation.

In the meantime, state officials in Arizona agreed to comply with a court decision that cities have the right to raise their own minimum wages. “The state threw in the towel, and they gave us fees to boot,” said attorney Shawn Aiken, who along with attorney Mik Jordahl represented the Flagstaff Living Wage Coalition.

The Flagstaff coalition had sued the state in April over a law that prohibits cities from raising the minimum wage. Group members argued that the cost of living in Flagstaff is nearly impossible to afford on the state’s current minimum wage of $8.05 an hour.

Attorney General Mark Brnovich agreed to a Maricopa County Superior Court judgment stating that the 2013 law limiting minimum-wage increases conflicts with Proposition 202, a measure Arizona voters approved in 2006 allowing cities to regulate wages and benefits. The wages cannot be lower than the state’s minimum wage.

June has not only seen raises on the West Coast but also in the heartland of Missouri. In St. Louis, the mayor is proposing to phase in $15 by 2020 from $7.65, which is the current state minimum wage. He is under pressure since a preemption law will take effect in Missouri on Aug. 28. This law will prevent cities from being able to raise their minimum wage higher than that of the state.

The Kansas City mayor has also talked about a $15 minimum wage. The state minimum wage is particularly abusive for tipped workers, who are only paid one half of the minimum wage, $3.82 an hour.

Also in June, the New York State Wage Board held hearings on the effect of the current minimum wage on fast-food workers. The hearings were held in Buffalo, Albany, Garden City, and Manhattan. Fast-food workers, clergy, and labor groups have been testifying for $15. The current state minimum wage is $8.75 an hour.

The New York Labor Commissioner can raise wages of individual occupations without legislative approval. The Restaurant Association in New York opposes any raise in the minimum wage but realizes they cannot compete with the well-organized workers’ movement and its allies, which they refer to as a “dog and pony show.”

“It seems as though this is just a formality, that this is going to get pushed through,” said Jay Holland, a spokesperson for the Restaurant Association. “The business community feels like it’s being ignored.”

Some states and cities with strong movements for $15 are currently not moving forward to increase the minimum wage through legislative or court channels. But they have an accessible ballot measure system. The states of Washington and Oregon have seen initiatives in this direction.

Tacoma, Wash., is in close proximity to two cities with a $15 minimum wage. SeaTac was the first victorious ballot measure, and Seattle was the first city to pass a $15 minimum wage measure. But the Tacoma mayor is saying $15 is too high and would be too much of a “shock to the economy.”

Meanwhile, 15 Now’s initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Tacoma has qualified to be on the November 2015 ballot. It would apply to all businesses making gross revenues of $300,000 or more. There would be no phase in and no exceptions according to the number of workers.

In Oregon, where Democrats control the state legislature, there are three bills on the table: $12, $13.50, and $15—none of which are making progress. The speaker of the House decided, as the session was almost over, to present a $13 bill so “there can be a conversation” about the minimum wage. It was clear that this was meant to stop the conversation about $15 that has been ongoing throughout Oregon. It is doubtful that the Democrats will pass any measure to raise the minimum wage.

On June 30, 15 Now Oregon held a press conference on the Capitol steps and marched to the Secretary of State’s office to submit the initial petitions to qualify for a $15 ballot measure in 2016.

It is important to remember that no wage increases took place because local governing bodies were suddenly concerned about poverty wages in their jurisdictions. Merely four years ago, any talk of a $15 minimum wage was ridiculed throughout the nation by virtually all political entities.

Raises for low-wage workers are being achieved only because a national workers’ movement demanding a living wage has come onto the scene. We should never forget the courage of the first New York City fast-food workers who walked off the job and demanded a $15 wage and a union. We now see the power of a movement that has spread from fast food to all low-wage workers.

Fast-food workers themselves know what they have started—as was apparent on June 6 when worker activists gathered for their second national convention. Some 1300 fast-food workers came from around the country to Detroit’s Cobo Center.

Most of the line cooks and cashiers are new to the labor movement, but they have more experience organizing strikes than most rank-and-file union members. Their enthusiasm easily matches that of any union rally.

In the main hall, workers and allies stomped in unison and yelled, “We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check!” The ballroom was hung with banners from Arizona, Little Rock, St. Louis, Memphis, Boston and Miami. It is clear that the workers are still striving for what they demanded in the first fast-food strikes in 2012—$15 per hour and a union.

The second day of the conference started with a video feed of Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton bringing greetings and words of encouragement. Clinton claimed that she wanted to be the workers’ champion. The following day, however, the Clinton campaign issued a “clarification” stating that she does not support the demand for a $15 minimum wage.

Meanwhile, the lead article on the SEIU website showing Clinton speaking to fast food workers quickly disappeared. The workers themselves seemed to know that they were their own best champions.