Department of Labor

Is the unlikely movement to improve the plight of low-wage workers reaching a point where it can’t be stopped?

On Tuesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order expanding the city’s living wage law. The change means businesses housed in buildings that benefit from hefty city subsidies will have to pay employees who don’t receive benefits the so-called living wage, now $13.13, up from the current $11.90. The mayor and his supporters hope to pressure the state legislature to give the city authority to raise its minimum wage across the board.

The expansion promises a substantial raise for an estimated 18,000 workers, including retail and fast-food workers, many of whom now make the New York state minimum wage of $8 an hour.

The change had been long promised by de Blasio, who rode to victory in last year’s city election on a platform built around addressing income inequality in what critics call the nation’s most economically polarized city.

It also comes on the heels of an announcement by California Gov. Jerry Brown Sunday that he had signed legislation to hold businesses responsible when their growing legion of subcontractors violate wage, workers’ compensation, or workplace safety rules. Also, in June, Seattle made history by becoming the first major city in the nation to adopt a $15-per-hour minimum wage. This year, at least 13 states and four cities saw minimum wage increases go into effect. Small victories, perhaps.

We know that President Obama’s effort to push the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour is stalled, despite the fact that the minimum wage has lost buying power over the decades.


Also, activists are worried that the administration may be faltering on its commitment to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to some 2 million home health care workers by January.

Still, the prospect of workers at the bottom of the labor heap—non unionized, often transient, and otherwise seemingly powerless—galvanizing a national movement to raise wages amid one of the worst job markets in decades seemed far-fetched. That was certainly the reaction less than two years ago when a couple hundred fast food workers walked off their jobs in New York demanding a raise to $15 an hour. Thee one-day strike, helped along by unions and other grassroots groups, eventually spread to 150 cities. Now, the idea of the nation’s least powerful workers demanding to be paid $15 an hour is not so surprising.

“Fifteen dollars an hour might have seemed outlandish two years ago, when striking fast-food workers first made the demand in New York City,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, a worker’s advocacy group. “But now, as momentum for higher pay sweeps the nation, it is increasingly becoming reality.