Why We Fight for a $15 an Hour Minimum Wage


“You know what your boss was trying to say? It’s like, ‘Hey if I could pay you less, I would, but it’s against the law.’” – Chris Rock

CEOs will be toasting 2014 with salaries 328 times that of average working people’s salaries, while working for minimum wage 40 hours a week doesn’t provide enough income to rent a two-bedroom apartment and manage other living expenses in any state in the nation (Out of Reach, National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2012).

Workers will enter 2014 celebrating the bold win in SeaTac, WA for a $15/hr minimum wage, the growing momentum of fast food worker’s movement, and the ongoing struggle of Walmart workers for a living wage. In Seattle, Kshama Sawant, a Socialist Alternative candidate was elected to city council on a platform calling for a citywide minimum wage of $15/hr. Her inauguration grabbed national and international headlines. Sawant, with labor and community groups at her side, declared 2014 as the year of the $15/hr minimum wage in Seattle. A win for $15 in a major city would embolden workers, igniting a struggle for better pay and benefits across the nation!

While low-wage workers are out in the streets across the country demanding increases in the minimum wage out of necessity, Obama and the Democrats hope they have found an issue under which they can take cover from the failures of the Obamacare rollout and the NSA scandals. At the same time, they hope to use the minimum wage as a way to mobilize the electorate for the 2014 midterm elections.

In the State of the Union address, Obama has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10/hr, while workers are facing skyrocketing rents and increasing health care costs. In reality, $10.10 still won’t be enough. But the Democrats’ loyalties are not to families seeking a dignified existence: but to corporations that keep them in political power—otherwise, they would proposed a living wage which would provide for the needs of families. One thing is clear: Working people can’t expect the Democrats to fight for us;  our interests are diametrically opposed to the corporate interests they defend.

How Will $15/hr Help Workers and the Unemployed?

Raising the minimum wage to $15/hr nationally would raise millions out of poverty, with 51 million workers getting a raise, (ThinkProgress, 12/2013). But who are the people making minimum wage? Nearly 80% are over the age of 20, not the high school kids trying to earn extra cash as we are told, (BLS, 2012). Women work a disproportionate share of minimum wage jobs and the majority of minimum wage workers are parents, (National Women’s Law Center, 2014). Raising the minimum wage will lift nearly one-third of the nation’s children out of poverty, (EPI, 8/2012).

People of color are also disproportionately affected by the minimum wage, as they are overrepresented in low-wage work compared to the rest of the population. Low-wage workers are “more likely to live in the South,” (Pew Research, 7/2013). Even soldiers in the U.S. Army ranking below sergeant would see a raise! As costs for food, housing, education, transportation, and health care rise, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will be an important boost to help the 99% make ends meet. And for workers currently making more than $15/hr? They’ll also see their incomes increase as pay scales are adjusted upwards to accommodate the new minimum, (Shierholz, 2009). Additionally, history shows that raising the minimum wage will stimulate the economy and create jobs, (EPI, 8/2012). All working people, as well as the unemployed, have an interest in this struggle!

But Can the 1% Afford to Give us a Raise?

The average CEO of an S&P 500 company makes $12.3 million a year on average. They can afford it. The 1% is able to make that kind of money by only paying workers an average of $34,645 per year, despite escalating productivity. Corporations are using the excuse of the recession to slash pay, attack pensions, and ratchet down their health care contributions. You’ve heard the rhetoric: “We all have to tighten our belts.” But in the last year, we saw 100 new billionaires added to the Forbes Billionaires List.

Meanwhile, since the recession corporations have replaced 60% of middle-income jobs with low-wage jobs, (National Employment Law Project, 2012). So what are the corporations doing with the savings stolen from working people? Well, according to The Wall Street Journal, they are sheltering increasingly larger sums of money overseas, to the tune of $1.3 trillion in 2012 (3/10/13). What are they “sheltering” that money from? Taxes. $1.3 trillion corresponds to an estimated $455 billion dollars in tax revenue. You know, taxes to fund things like education, mass transit, and health care.

Then take the case of the Waltons. Four members of the Walton family have inherited a place on the billionaires list. Their positions on that roster are subsidized by your taxes: Walmart pays its employees so little nationwide that they need $2.66 billion a year in government assistance just to make ends meet, (Good Jobs First, 7/2013).

The thing is, wages haven’t kept pace with productivity, which has doubled over the past 40 years. If they had, the minimum wage would be approximately $18, (CEPR, 9/2013). So if productivity has increased, it isn’t out of economic necessity that wages are so low — it’s the insatiable greed of the 1%. This is how capitalism functions: Workers are impoverished while wealth is concentrated at the top. If this system can’t afford to pay us fairly, we can’t afford this system!

But What About Small Businesses?

Anger is growing across the country as it becomes increasingly clear that big business is escalating its exploitation of low-wage workers. To fight against the growing movement to raise the minimum wage, these mega-corporations are trying to deflect attention from their super-profits by spending huge sums of money on publicity focusing on the “concerns of small business.”

Socialist Alternative is very open to help ing small businesses – but not on the backs of the workers. Everyone working full-time deserves a decent living. Help for small businesses can be organized by taxes on big business (which are at historically low rates) and eliminating corporate welfare to subsidize small businesses, along with cutting the property tax burden on small businesses and, in Washington State, the business and occupation (B&O) tax. Raising the minimum wage will help small businesses by increasing the spending power of their potential customers.

Won’t It Lead to Pink Slips and Inflation?

So when big business and the super-rich claim they’ll be ruined by paying a living wage, it rings a bit hollow, not to mention that claim hasn’t been borne out in practice. In 2003, San Francisco passed Prop L, raising the minimum wage to $10.55, the highest in the nation. This provided a real-life, concrete opportunity to see the actual effects of a wage hike. What happened? The implementation of Prop L led to “increased worker pay and compressed wage inequality, but did not create any detectable employment loss among affected restaurants,” (Cook, 4/2013). Little, if any, cost was passed onto the consumer; prices rose by pennies, if at all. Further, they found that increased wages resulted in higher rates of retention and a larger proportion of restaurant workers working full-time rather than just part-time. With more stable and better-paid jobs, workers would also be far more inclined to organize into unions to protect and improve conditions in these jobs.

Also, because low-wage workers would spend this increased income on products – unlike the 1%, who hoard much of their income – raising the minimum wage will provide modest stimulation to the economy, resulting in job growth.

However, in the longer term, big business will make every effort to undermine a higher minimum wage. That’s because the capitalist system cannot meet the needs of the 99% in any real way. Yet, this is not an argument against raising wages. It is an argument to link the struggle for $15 to a struggle for affordable housing, cheap public transport, free public education, high quality health care, and pensions for the all workers and poor people. For Socialist Alternative, the struggle to improve the conditions of workers is linked to fighting the whole profit-driven system of capitalism.

As a first step, winning $15 will make an enormous difference in the lives of working people and inspire workers everywhere to fight to improve their own living and working conditions.

Let’s Take the Momentum Forward in 2014!

While working people and poor people understand the challenges of making ends meet on poverty wages, the Democrats would rather offer crumbs in the form of inadequate increases in the minimum wage in order to mobilize its base for midterm elections.

The demand for $15/hr has its roots 51 years ago in the March on Washington. One of ten demands was, “A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” Protesters demanded nothing less than $2/hr, which would be just over $15 today.

Those are types of actions we need now if we want to win a living wage for all. We need mass movements that cut across race, gender, and sexual orientation by recognizing our shared struggle against a system based on economic injustice. And make no mistake: any hope placed in the parties of big business will be dashed. Miserly corporations like Walmart and fast-food giants line the pockets of both Democrats and Republicans at the national and state levels. Working people need a party of our own that will fight for our interests, not those of big business. If we’ve learning anything from the election of Kshama Sawant, it’s that elections can be won without dirty money and independent parties can change the debate. Get organized and let’s take the momentum forward in 2014!

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