When hundreds of fast-food workers in New York City went on strike in 2012, they weren’t focused on starting a national movement. They were simply fighting for a livable income. “We’re trying to at least survive,” said Truvon Shim, one of the workers calling for a $15 hourly minimum wage and the right to join a union. “At least make it without having to [go] week to week. At least be able to put something in the bank for a rainy day.”
Within months, what became known as the Fight for $15 had spread to dozens of cities. The movement soon found champions in city halls and statehouses nationwide and won landmark victories in Seattle, California, New York and several other places. In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made the $15 minimum wage a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, pushing the Democratic Party to include it in its platform. But, until last week, the proposal had never received a vote in Congress.
Last Thursday, the House passed the Raise the Wage Act, which would gradually increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour by 2025. The vote marked the first time that either house of Congress has approved a minimum-wage increase since 2007. In addition, the bill would phase out the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, which has remained at a paltry $2.13 an hour for nearly three decades.
A significant pay raise for the working poor is long overdue. The decade since the $7.25 minimum wage took effect is the longest period without an increase in history. In that time, workers earning minimum wage have seen their purchasing power decline by 17 percent, and they now bring home nearly one-third less in today’s dollars than they did a half-century ago. This is especially outrageous given that while the working poor have effectively taken a pay cut, corporate profits and incomes for the wealthy have soared.
The House bill would provide millions of people with desperately needed relief. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would directly benefit more than 27 million workers, reducing the number of Americans living in poverty by 1.3 million. The Economic Policy Institute puts the number of workers who would benefit even higher, at about 33.5 million. The impact would be particularly massive for women and people of color: For example, it would benefit 43 percent of working single mothers. So, in addition to being an economic imperative, this is a civil rights issue and a women’s issue, too.
As we approach next week’s presidential debates, the Raise the Wage Act is a timely reminder of how much workers stand to gain — or lose — in the 2020 election. President Trump has fully embraced the Republican Party’s plutocratic agenda of tax cuts for corporations and the rich. By contrast, House Democrats have used the first seven months of their majority to demonstrate what a truly progressive government could achieve. Despite the media’s overwhelming focus on divisions within the party, what is underreported is how Democrats have united to advance critical policies that would benefit workers, provide equal pay for women, bring down the cost of prescription drugs and reduce the corrosive influence of big money in our elections. But it will take a Democratic president and Senate majority to enact these policies into law.
More than anything else, though, the success of the Raise the Wage Act is a testament to the power of the workers, unions — led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — and organizers who built the Fight for $15 into a durable movement that politicians could not ignore. In the span of seven years, they have transformed an idea that was once considered extreme into a consensus Democratic position. They have created life-altering change for millions of families. And now, they have moved one step closer to giving all American workers the dignity of a living wage.
“A few years ago, the idea of a $15 minimum wage was resisted even by liberals in our own party,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told BuzzFeed News. “Now, it’s being embraced by New Democrats and Blue Dogs. It shows that when you have a strong economic argument and a populist message and you mobilize, you can win the debate.”
That principle doesn’t apply only to the minimum wage. It’s also a prescription for winning debates over key progressive goals — such as Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal — that will define Democrats for years to come. While the fight for $15 and a union is far from over, it has already provided a road map for changing the party. Progressives would be smart to follow it.