Activists Around the US Fight to Raise the Minimum Wage

Activists Around the US Fight to Raise the Minimum Wage

Activists Around the US Fight to Raise the Minimum Wage

At a time when 4.5 million Americans make at or below the minimum wage, a broad coalition unites to demand better pay. 


At New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, namesake of that scion of noblesse oblige, there is a great deal in the way of noblesse, as it is a hub for the world’s financial elite, but not much in the way of oblige. The workers who provide security, handle baggage, clean, and cook at JFK make an average wage of $8 an hour, too often putting not just a plane ticket but any semblance of financial security completely out of reach.

Prince Jackson, a security guard at JFK, makes $1,000 per month. “Half of the money goes to rent,” Jackson told a crowd of union members and community activists gathered in New York City’s Union Square on July 24. “After all of my expenses I don’t have anything left.…I can’t explain how much I need the minimum wage to increase.”

The rally was part of a broader movement to demand an increase in the minimum wage, which at the federal level has stood stagnant at $7.25 since July 24, 2009. An estimated 4.5 million workers in the United States make at or below the minimum wage, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that seven out of the ten fastest growing occupations, such as in-home healthcare workers and retail workers, are typically low-wage. A coalition of labor unions and community organizations across the United States, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), coalesced around the issue on July 24, with actions in more than 30 cities. Organizers have also protested companies that have historically offered low-wage jobs, such as McDonald’s in Milwaukee and JC Penney in New York City, in addition to members of Congress opposed to or ambivalent about a minimum wage increase.

At the rally in New York City, more than 2,000 people marched from Herald Square to a rally in Union Square, demanding a minimum wage increase at both the New York state and federal levels. The New York State Assembly passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour in May, but the State Senate failed to take action before the end of the legislative session in June. Activists are hoping to pass the bill at the beginning of the next legislative session in January.

In Saint Louis, 200 activists rallied outside of an Applebee’s restaurant to organize in favor of a Missouri ballot initiative that would raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour. A minimum wage measure appeared on the ballot in the Show Me State in 2006, with voters passing the measure 3-to-1. In an effort to raise the state’s wage again, activists collected more than 167,000 signatures in April in order to have the measure placed on the general election ballot. They cleared a significant hurdle on July 31 when the state’s Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit that would have struck down the measure, and activists will find out later this week whether or not the Secretary of State has found enough of their signatures valid to qualify.

In Illinois, community organization Action Now picketed a Dunkin Donuts, while teachers and community activists held a press conference outside of a private equity firm partly owned by Chicago heiress and school board member Penny Pritztker, arguing that an increase in the minimum wage would lessen poverty and as a result improve pupil performance in Chicago schools. A plan to raise the minimum wage stalled in the state legislature in May, but activists there are hoping for further movement after the 2012 elections.

Cities are also tackling the minimum wage issue. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, a group called Organizers in the Land of Enchantment is collecting signatures in an effort to put a measure to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.50 to $8.50 per hour on its November ballot. And in San Jose, California, a sociology class at San Jose State turned a research project on the living wage into a movement to increase the city’s minimum wage from the state minimum of $8 to $10 per hour. Students and community allies gathered more than 36,000 signatures to have the measure placed on the ballot. If passed, the ordinance would make San Jose one of five cities in the nation with its own minimum wage.

On the federal level, US Senator Tom Harkin’s Rebuild America Act contains a provision that will raise the federal minimum wage to $9.80 per hour by 2014, and index the minimum wage to inflation afterwards. Because the federal minimum wage is not indexed to inflation, the living wage movement must play a constant game of catch-up, meaning that Harkin’s proposal to index the wage to inflation after 2014 would constitute a significant gain, allowing the movement to focus on other issues that affect predominantly low-wage workers. However, there is significant opposition to increasing the minimum wage among Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress, and as of now the bill has no cosponsors in the Senate. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s companion bill in the house has just three cosponsors.

The living wage movement was bolstered by a brief released in July by the National Employment Law Project. The brief, “Big Business, Corporate Profits, and the Minimum Wage,” revealed that 66% of low-wage workers in the United States work at corporations with over 100 employees. Beyond that, the vast majority of the 50 largest employers of low-wage workers are profitable: 92%. Executive compensation averaged out at an eye-popping $9.4 million, and the corporations returned nearly $175 billion to shareholders in dividends and buybacks in the past five years.

The national campaign to raise the minimum wage follows on labor-backed campaigns to do the same in the mid-1990s and mid-2000s. Despite the fact that most union members make considerably more than minimum wage, labor leaders see the increase in the minimum wage as affecting all working people generally. Tammie Miller, chapter chair of the United Federation of Teachers Family Child Care Providers, said at the New York rally, “We are out here because we understand what these workers are going through. A few years ago we formed a union, and we understand that increased wages is where they need to go. So we’re out here in solidarity with them and we stand with them.”

One of the ways in which union-backed movements succeeded in raising the minimum wage in 2004 and 2006 was by aggressively funding ballot initiatives in places like Florida and Ohio. However, unions’ ability to fund these kinds of campaigns has just been restricted by the Roberts Court. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in late June that union members must opt-in as opposed to opt-out for special dues assessments. These assessments are usually issued in cases where a union must pursue an important issue politically, such as raising the minimum wage.

Mass poverty is increasingly normalized in this country, as the plight of the working poor is almost entirely excluded from our national discourse. Organizers around the country are forcing issues that affect the working poor back into the conversation through these actions, demanding businesses to pay wages that allow people to survive and revitalize their communities. Let’s see if Washington gets the message.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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