At the most recent Democratic presidential campaign, candidates clashed over the minimum wage. Bernie Sanders made it clear that he supports raising it to $15 an hour, full stop, as does Martin O’Malley. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, demurred on $15, saying she instead supports raising it to $12 an hour.
The clash is not just surprising because the candidates were finally fighting with each other. It’s also remarkable given where the state of the debate over the minimum wage was just years ago. In 2013, Democrats were debating whether the minimum should be $9 or $10.10 an hour — and even that was seen as significant in a country that hasn’t raised its minimum wage from $7.25 in six years. In 2012, the highest state minimum wage was just over $9. Today there are three cities with $15 minimums and at least two states may be close behind.
How did the debate change such that the argument is over whether or not it should be nearly doubled to $15 an hour?
The seeds were first sown by the Great Recession, when millions lost their jobs and many ended up in work paying closer to the minimum wage. “We had a lot of folks having to take jobs that were much lower paying than any they had previously had, a lot of jobs in retail and the service sector, because those were the first ones to come back coming out of the recession,” said David Cooper, economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute. Workers who used to be middle class wound up in these low paying jobs and “recognized that pay in these jobs was just unlivablely low.”
Low pay was also put on the agenda when protestors crowded into Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan toward the end of 2011 and launched the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the loudest rallying cries was around skyrocketing income inequality, and they got everyone talking about it. “The fact that paychecks haven’t been growing despite productivity growing over the last 40 years [is] one of the primary drivers in the growth of inequality,” Cooper noted.
But it was fast food workers who really put $15 on the map. In November of 2012, they staged the first strike in the history of the industry, walking off the job in New York City. The strikers called to be paid at least $15 an hour and to be given the right to unionize, and they launched the Fight for 15 movement that has since grown to include other low-wage workers like home care aids and child care providers. The most recent day of strikes hit 270 cities. “It’s the Fight for 15 launched by fast food workers which has changed this whole environment,” said Paul Sonn, general counsel and program director at the National Employment Law Project. “They created a mass movement for raising wages, and it has also raised the bar with this strong demand for a $15 minimum.”
The results have been remarkable. “It really is a dramatic change in the environment that now the movement is for a $15 wage,” Sonn noted. “It’s a totally different environment from what we had before.”
It took a while for the message to reach politicians. In February of 2013, President Obama called for the wage to increase to $9, actually less than what he had promised in his campaign. Democrats in Congress went further than that, but still introduced a bill raising it to $10.10 an hour.
But change started to happen on the city and state level. A majority of states have now raised their wages above the federal level. And in May of 2014, Seattle passed a $15 minimum wage, with other cities joining in later on. The number of cities that have increased their own minimums has more than quadrupled in recent years. New York State has since instituted a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers and is eyeing a statewide $15 minimum.
And Congress caught up. In April of this year, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) introduced a bill to raise the wage to $12 an hour. That would bring the lowest wage more in line with where it used to stand in relation to the median wage, or what a typical worker makes. That ratio was 52 percent back in 1968, and $12 would today bring the minimum wage up to 54 percent of the median.
The call for a $15 wage, however, reached Congress just months later, when Sanders, Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison (MN), Raúl Grijalva (AZ), and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced a bill to increase it to that level in July.
“The fact that the mainstream position for Democrats is $12 an hour just shows how much the Fight for 15 has changed the world,” Sonn argued.
The momentum is likely to continue on a local, rather than national, scale. “Because of the way the political playing field is laid out, the number of places where you can move things is really constrained,” Sonn said. “Congress is gridlocked, there aren’t that many blue states.”
A case study in the power of this movement, however, may have recently appeared in a red state in the south. The Kentucky cities of Lexington and Louisville have both raised their minimum wages, the former to $10.10 an hour and the latter to $9. That’s significant for a number of reasons: Louisville was the first city in the south to raise its wage, Kentucky hasn’t seen a higher minimum wage level than the federal floor until now, and those wage levels are actually close to comparable to a $15 wage in a high-cost city like San Francisco. “The Fight for 15, that whole national movement was certainly an inspiration here in Kentucky,” said Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “It’s in part fueled by this whole national mood around the minimum wage that is leading to efforts all around the country.”
These increases are also proof that the issue has salience even in a southern state. “It shows that people are deeply concerned about this issue and that it’s possible to make progress here,” he said. “I expect to see more activity in Kentucky and hopefully in some of our other southern states as well.”
Workers throughout the country can expect more raises at the state and city levels in 2016. Sonn thinks it’s likely that New York, through Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)’s efforts, and California, through a popular ballot initiative, will enact statewide $15 minimums. When that happens, he said, “What would have been politically, unimaginable two years ago suddenly will be law in two of the most significant states in the country.”
There is even the smallest glimmer of a bipartisan recognition of this issue, as many of the Republican presidential candidates have mentioned the fact that wages have stagnated for most Americans for decades during the debates. “The fact that both parties are talking about wage stagnation is an enormous victory for working people throughout this country,” said Cooper. But of course the Republicans, by and large, don’t support a higher minimum wage and have been instead backing big tax cuts for the wealthy. “Most of what the Republicans have been putting forward doesn’t pass the sniff test,” Cooper said. “Cutting taxes is not going to raise what employers pay.”
The challenge will also be to not just focus on increasing the minimum wage, but increasing all wages. “Everyone is recognizing now that wage stagnation is the primary challenge that the economy is facing and we have to do something about it. The minimum wage is one tool to address that problem,” Cooper said. “But it can’t be our only tool for raising wages, because it’s not just low-wage workers who need a raise.”