It is time for a great big increase in the minimum wage.
The American people.
It is not just the thousands of fast-food restaurant workers and their allies who rallied Thursday in 130 cities across the country, although the “strike against poverty wages” puts a human face on the data charting a dramatric increase in enthusiasm for this fight.
It is vital for supporters of wage increases to recognize—as everyone from Pope Francis to President Obama is talking about income inequality—that few proposals attract such broad support as the idea of raising hourly pay so that people who work forty hours a week can support their families.
A Hart Research Associates poll conducted last summer for the National Employment Law Project Action Fund found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed favor a $10.10-an-hour wage floor. And the support cuts across lines of partisanship, ideology, race and region.
Ninety-two percent of Democrats favor the increase, as do 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans.
Support from Americans who earn over $100,000 a year (79 percent) is roughly the same as from Americans who earn under $40,000 a year (83 percent). Southerners are almost as supportive (81 percent) as Northeasterners (86 percent).
This enthusiasm is not just theoretical. It is immediate. Seventy-four percent of Americans say that Congress should make it a priority to significantly increase the minimum wage.
Where they can, voters are getting ahead of Congress. In New Jersey, voters just raised the state’s minimum wage by a dollar and cleared the way for additional hikes by indexing increases to inflation.
In the Seattle area last month, voters backed a $15-an-hour minimum wage for the airport city of SeaTac, and elected a $15-an-hour advocate, Kshama Sawant to the city council. Even before Sawant’s swearing in, newly-elected Mayor Ed Murray has announced that a city will study hiking wages. And Sawant says, “If corporate resistance results in the ordinance getting watered down or not passing in 2014, then we will need to place an initiative on the 2014 ballot…. Workers simply can’t afford to wait any longer for $15 an hour.”
Something real is happening across the country. And it is about time. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington for jobs and freedom fifty years ago, the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. In today’s dollars, that guaranteed base wage would be $9.54 an hour.
But the federal minimum wage today is just $7.25 an hour.
So low-wage workers are more than $2 behind where they were when King declared: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
As Congressman Keith Ellison, D-MN, said at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, “Income inequality threatens our democracy as Jim Crow segregation did in 1963. Families are working harder than ever and are still struggling to put food on the table. A full day’s work doesn’t mean a full day’s pay.”
And that is especially true for fast-food workers.
Most Americans are aware that, especially in a weak economy, fast-food restaurant jobs are no longer “entry-level” positions. In chain restaurants across the country, most workers are adults. And substantial numbers of them are trying to support families.
But if they are paid the minimum wage, or even a bit more, they live in poverty.
“Almost one-quarter of all jobs in the United States pay wages below the poverty line for a family of four. CEO compensation, meanwhile, continues to climb. It would take a full-time, minimum-wage worker more than 930 years to earn as much as the chief executive officer of Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, made in 2012,” explains Christine Owens, the executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Fast-food workers are in the lowest paid occupational category. The median hourly wage for front-line fast-food workers is $8.94 nationally. Many don’t even earn that. A shortage of hours further limits income. Fast-food workers work only 24 hours a week on average—at $8.94 an hour, this adds up to barely $11,000 a year.”
Organizing for better pay for fast-food and retail workers does not just benefit those workers and their families. “We can’t build a strong economy on jobs that pay so little that families can’t live on them,” notes Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry. “Raising the wage floor will make the economy stronger for all of us.”
Indeed, argues California Congressman George Miller, the senior Democratic member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, “Low pay…holds back our recovery from the Great Recession.”
Miller is the House author of the Fair Minimum Wage Act (HR 1010), which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The rate would then be indexed to inflation, so that pay increases come when prices rise. Additionally, Miller’s bill would increase the required cash wage for tipped workers.
Ultimately, increases must go even higher to achieve a living-wage standard. But what Miller proposes is a meaningful step in the right direction.
“Better pay will put more money into local businesses and spur economic growth,” says the California congressman. “That’s why a living wage is not about asking for a handout. Rather, it’s about valuing work. And it’s about growing the economy from the bottom up by increasing working families’ purchasing power. Americans on today’s picket lines aren’t just standing up for themselves—they are standing up for a stronger America.”
Allison Kilkenny on the fast food workers striking for living wages nationwide.