When protestors gathered in the nation’s capital 50 years ago from Wednesday, they had ten concrete demands, one of which was “A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” They also pointed out that research showed that “anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.” A $2 minimum wage would be $15.27 an hour in today’s dollars.
Yet today’s minimum wage stands at $7.25, where it hasn’t budged for four years. And it has in fact fallen in value since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his “I Have A Dream” speech. If it had kept up with inflation since the 1960s, it would be over $10 an hour.
The low minimum wage has huge racial implications today as it did then. People of color make up 42 percent of workers earning that wage but just 32 percent of the overall workforce. If the minimum wage were raised to $10.10 an hour, they would be the majority of those lifted out of poverty, as it would raise wages for 3.5 million people of color.
Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced a bill in March that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and index it to inflation so that its value doesn’t continue to erode over the years, while President Obama has proposed raising it to $9 an hour. Yet House Republicans unanimously voted down Miller and Harkin’s bill later that month. Even so, 65 Republicans currently serving in the House or Senate supported an increase in the wage when President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2007.
But minimum wage workers aren’t waiting silently. Fast food and retail workers have gone on strike in nine cities to demand a $15 minimum wage and other improvements, such as the ability to form unions. And Americans side with these workers, with 80 percent backing a raise to $10.10 an hour.