Nearly five years ago, a group of fast food workers went on strike in New York City, demanding they be paid at least $15 an hour.
The demand seemed pretty idealistic at the time. But the movement that one-day strike spawned experienced another huge victory on Wednesday: Democratic Party leaders announced that they will soon introduce a bill to raise the minimum wage across the entire country to $15 an hour.
Just two years ago, that was not the party line. In 2015, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) put forward a bill to raise the wage to $12 an hour. It was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Democratic Reps. Keith Ellison (MN) and Raúl Grijalva (AZ) who introduced a $15 minimum wage a few months later. While Sanders backed a $15 wage in his bid for the party’s presidential nomination, his rival and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton supported a $12 wage.
Now all of those members of Congress have come together to support a $15 wage.
Their legislation, dubbed the Raise the Wage Act, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, increasing it from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $9.20 an hour once it’s passed and then adding about a dollar a year for seven years until it gets to $15. It would rise automatically after that as the country’s median wages rose.
The bill would eventually do away with the separate tipped minimum wage, which currently allows those who earn tips as part of their compensation to be paid as little as $2.13 an hour by their employers. It would increase that rate to $3.15 and then gradually raise it so it would eventually reach $15 an hour.
It also would get rid of lower minimum wages for disabled workers and those under the age of 20 who are newly hired, gradually increasing them to reach $15 an hour. As things currently stand, employers are able to get special certificates for hiring disabled workers that allow them to pay less than the minimum wage required for all other workers.
It’s a bold piece of legislation, given that the party consensus just a few years ago focused on a $12 minimum wage increase. But it wasn’t that difficult to bring everyone in the party along, according to Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project. “It wasn’t hard at all,” she said. “Legislative leaders knew it was time.”
One reason has been the effectiveness of the Fight for 15 movement, which has staged a series of increasingly larger strikes, brought in a diverse group of workers, and secured legislative wins in two states and numerous cities. That activism and organization put the idea of a $15 minimum wage on the map. Low-wage federal contract workers again staged a strike Wednesday calling on President Trump to increase their pay with executive action.
Wages have also stagnated in the years since the Great Recession ended, even as jobs have mostly come back. That’s left people feeling dissatisfied and falling further behind. The minimum wage has stagnated in the same time period; it’s worth 10 percent less than in 2009, when it was last raised, adjusted for inflation.
A minimum wage increase this high could help undo that trend. By 2019, according to a new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the legislation would bring the value of the minimum wage above where it was in 1968 for the first time in more than a half century. It would finally be enough, if someone were working full-time and supporting a family of four, to lift her out of poverty.
“The lowest-paid workers in the U.S. economy earn less than what their counterparts did 50 years ago, which is just absolutely crazy and socially irresponsible,” said Ben Zipperer, an economist at EPI. “We’re really digging ourselves out of a hole.”
It would also directly and indirectly lead to raises for millions of Americans. According to EPI’s analysis, 22.5 million people would get higher pay thanks to their employers being required to increase their wages within seven years, earning an average of $5,100 more a year for full-time work. Another 19 million people, meanwhile, would see their pay rise as employers hiked compensation for people making more than $15 an hour so as to retain and attract them. That amounts to a raise for more than a quarter of the entire wage-earning workforce.
The group of Americans who would be impacted by the legislation is not what many may think a typical minimum wage worker looks like. Their average age is 36; a bigger share of workers over age 55 would be impacted than teenagers. Just shy of two-thirds work full time. More than half are women, while more than a quarter are supporting children. People of color would also make up a disproportionate share of those getting an increase in pay.
And that leads to the political reality facing Democratic lawmakers. The election showed that “big bold ideas are what captivate people,” Conti said. “The boldness of $15 is very important.” Democrats may now feel that they can’t afford anything less.