How We Won the Fight for $15, and What Progressives Can Do Next

$15 Now

Still on the march!

Four years ago this week, fast food workers in New York City took to the streets to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage. A little over three years ago, the city of SeaTac approved a $15 minimum wage for workers serving Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. And in the intervening years, cities across the country (including Seattle, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York City and states including California, Oregon, and Arizona) have approved minimum wage increases that will put them well above the federal minimum of $7.50 per hour.

None of that is new to you. It’s fact. It’s history. But we can’t afford to let these substantial victories become something that we take for granted. The truth is, it’s already difficult to remember now how far-fetched the Fight for $15 seemed at the time, but literally every part of the political establishment was dead set against it: business owners, newspaper editorial boards, and elected leaders on the right and the left.

Here’s one example of the change that’s taken place over the last four years: The editorial board at the Seattle Times fought tooth and nail against raising the minimum wage for years, threatening apocalypse after apocalypse if the wage in SeaTac or Seattle was increased. But just five months after their last anti-wage editorial, bucking decades of tradition, the same editorial board endorsed an initiative to raise Washington state’s minimum wage to $13.50. (Perhaps part of the reason why the Times changed its tune was that those apocalypses — apocalypsii? — that they promised never arrived.)

This was an unprecedented endorsement in the history of the Times, a watershed moment for minimum wage advocates, and it turned out to be a significant precursor to a historic moment, too. On election day this year, four states voted to raise their own minimum wage. Some might consider the blue states of Washington ($13.50) and Colorado ($12) to be easy wins, but Maine, which split its electoral votes between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and Arizona, which leaned ruby red in the presidential election, both voted for $12 minimum wages, too.

What started as a fringe movement that was mocked by the establishment has become a foregone conclusion — the National Restaurant Association used to send armies of anti-wage representatives to cities that were considering raising the wage, but now they only put up token resistance, if they bother to show up at all. Perhaps more importantly for our fractured nation, it’s a rare issue that inspires bipartisan support (that is, bipartisan support from average people, not from elected officials — an important distinction that I’ll go into later.) And so in this way, $15 has to be considered a model for progressives who are preparing for the next four years.

So, how did it all come together?

It started with a diverse coalition. Labor leaders (including SEIU 775 President David Rolf, author of The Fight for $15: The Right Wage for a Working America) and business leaders (including Civic Ventures founder — and my boss — Nick Hanauer) formulated a new theory of economics based on years of reading and theory and practice, built on policies promoted by thinkers and leaders including former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. You can get a good sense of the thinking that provided the foundation for the Fight for $15 in this Bloomberg piece from 2013 by Hanauer.

Then the coalition needed to show that they had the will to change a political climate. This is where the fast food workers’ strike came in. At the time, blog commenters and politically moderate columnists everywhere were mocking the workers for demanding a higher wage. But what the naysayers didn’t understand was that even as they mocked the protests, they were giving the workers a microphone, and the workers’ stories inspired thousands of people to take action on their behalf.

Progressive leaders have learned that stories are the best mechanism for inspiring political change in individuals. It worked with same-sex marriage — it’s easy to demonize a group you don’t know and very hard to take away rights from a human with a face and a story — and it worked with the Fight for $15. Once ordinary Americans saw that these fast food workers weren’t the imaginary system-leeching “welfare queens” that conservatives like to bray over, or pimply teenagers looking to buy a new sound system for their hand-me-down car, they understood the importance of raising the wage.

Those stories are essential, but the implementation wouldn’t happen without solid thinking behind it. If you were to look back at older Democratic calls to raise the minimum wage, you’d see a lot of talk about “fairness,” about “spreading the wealth.” And it is true that raising the minimum wage is fair and it does spread the wealth. But more importantly, research indicated that increasing the minimum wage was good for business owners and everyone else, that it was one of the fastest and most significant methods to reduce the widening inequality that all Americans could feel encroaching into their lives. Watch this ad from Maine’s successful initiative to raise the wage to see what that message looks like in action:

SeaTac paved the way for Seattle, and Seattle paved the way for the rest of the nation. And now that the minimum wage has been raised, we’re starting to see results. One study from the University of Washington found that in the first year of Seattle’s increase, wages across the city are up, low-wage employment is up, and the total number of hours worked are up. And a recent study from a UNC economist and the National Employment Law Project looked at decades of national minimum-wage increase data and found no correlation between raising the wage and employment levels.These studies have put the lie to decades of threats and intimidation tactics from conservative politicians, emboldening lawmakers and workers in cities and states around the country to take action.

Though most Americans favor a significant increase, conservative politicians don’t seem to be budging on the minimum wage. The only two Republican presidential candidates who endorsed an increase in the minimum wage this year were Rick Santorum and Donald Trump. (Although Trump has also made statements against raising the minimum wage and even statements that America’s wages are too high at the present level, so what he truly believes is anyone’s guess.)

It’s pretty easy to figure out why conservatives are opposed to $15: the corporate interests and bankers who fund their campaigns don’t want to pay higher wages for workers.

But as we’ve proven again and again, politicians will eventually go where the people lead. The success of the minimum-wage movement is its inclusiveness: you can’t just pass good legislation with protesters, or just with policymakers, or just with legislators. You need everyone — business owners, workers, activists — to come together, set clear goals, and bring those goals into reality. When more people are involved in political action, guess what? That political action is more likely to serve everyone’s goals.

In the years since we raised the minimum wage in Seattle, we’ve followed that model and seen great successes. We passed a secure scheduling lawwhich protects workers from predatory scheduling practices. Our statewide minimum wage initiative also included a provision for paid sick leave so that workers don’t have to work when they’re ill. Step by step, we’re restoring the rights that made it possible for citizens to enjoy the secure middle-class lives that made America so prosperous in the 20th century.

There’s much to do. America’s middle class needs a raise through increased overtime protections. Parasitic employers continue to make employment a government-subsidized race to the bottom in too many areas around the country. The stratospheric increase in gig economy employment demands bold new thinking in terms of the benefits contract. But now that the Fight for $15 has seen such resounding success, none of these tasks seem impossible anymore. We know how to do this. We’ve got the blueprint, and our successes in red states assure us that not even Donald Trump and his band of cronies can stop our momentum. Now is the time to stick together—all of us—and keep working.

 

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.