The residents of St. Paul are living a tale of two cities: As one of the Twin Cities, St. Paul residents have had to sit by and see its neighbor, Minneapolis, recently enact a $15 minimum wage. Now workers are seeking to equalize this two-tier wage system in Minnesota’s regional powerhouse economy by launching their own campaign for a citywide $15 hourly base wage across all sectors, marshaling local labor groups and community activists in the struggle that has been moving the demand for a $15 minimum wage from the fringes to the center left of national politics.
As public discussions of the wage proposal get underway, the Fifteen Now Minnesota coalition, which has run a number of Fight for 15 campaigns around the state, published a survey of local workers showing that typical wages in the city often aren’t enough to support families and communities—respondents reported median wages of just $11 per hour, with the lowest pay scales in restaurant work. Nearly 40 percent are scraping by on $10 per hour or less, and young precarious workers as well as older adults supporting families were facing dismal, poverty-wage working conditions. Many respondents reported that they struggled to cover basic housing needs, and earning $15 an hour would help them pay down debts, cover utilities costs, or make long-overdue car repairs.
Celeste Robinson, co-director of Fifteen Now Minnesota, tells The Nation that the prospects for winning a major pay increase under the banner of “Fifteen Now and a Union” is shifting the city’s political climate. After years of struggling with precarious work, she says, “people are realizing there is actually a possibility that we could have jobs with dignity, that we could not have vast swaths of the population to be working poor…when we all band together and fight.”
At the same time, cities like St. Paul are being courted by Washington conservatives who are touting a similarly positive narrative, from another perspective. The Trump administration’s Council of Economic Advisers reports that, by its estimates, wages have ticked up by less than 2 percent since early 2017. It’s perhaps a vague signal of a long-overdue recovery finally reaching ordinary workers. Nonetheless, other independent federal analyses show that real wages have slid downward over the past decade and the trend has continued, even accelerated, under Trump.
But even if you buy Washington’s line that the economy is “doing great,” before you let President Trump take credit for that trend, remember: Many of the biggest wage gains for the working class in recent months haven’t come as a gift of corporate largesse, nor as a result of Trump’s fiscal ingenuity. Rather, it’s the spoils of half a decade of protests on the front lines of the Fight for 15, driving momentum for living wage campaigns on the city, state, and workplace levels nationwide.
The hard-fought minimum-wage standards that the movement has advanced across dozens of states and cities are finally coming to fruition. By 2020, $15 minimum-wage policies are set to be phased in for some 5 million workers nationwide, with many more local campaigns underway, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP). And a new study on the impact of a $15 hourly wage standard in six cities suggests that by investing early in the promise of the Fight for $15, they’ve blazed a progressive trail for the country.
According to researchers at UC Berkeley, the data from six diverse, and heavily unequal, cities—Chicago, the District of Columbia, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, and Seattle—their recently enacted laws that are on track to phase in the minimum wage of $15 show that the laws are working as intended. Compared to 2015 earnings levels, the raises, when fully phased in, will raise incomes for about 15 to 30 percent of the workforce.
Focusing on the food sector, where many workers are hovering at or around the minimum wage, the researchers uncovered results that were refreshingly predictable: “A 10 percent increase in the minimum wage increases earnings between 1.3 and 2.5 percent, depending on the model estimated.” Moreover, among employers operating under a higher wage standard, researchers did not see “significant negative employment effects.”
So, contrary to the warnings of business groups that a major minimum-wage hike would push employers out of business, it seems restaurants are still thriving, and fast-food restaurants aren’t cutting staff to avoid paying cashiers a few bucks more.
Of course, as more localities pass $15 minimum-wage policies, it still remains to be seen whether the results apply everywhere. But co-author Carl Nadler argues: “It is an open question how the citywide policies that we study would fare in other parts of the country. But keep in mind that many low-wage workers are in states where the minimum wage is only $7.25. For these workers, the benefits of raising the minimum wage are clear.”
Currently 21 states (about 20 million workers) remain trapped at the absurdly low federal wage floor of $7.25 an hour, which has lost about 30 percent of its real value since the late 1970s. According to the NELP, “Cost-of-living data show that in all 50 states, a single worker without children will need $15 an hour by 2024 to cover basic living costs…workers with children and those in high-cost states will need even more.” So far, wage policies in the $12-to-$15 range are rolling out for six states and 17 cities and counties nationwide.
Despite these gains, though, many hurdles lie ahead for the Fight for 15. Some states have imposed preemption laws that restrict localities from raising wage standards independently. And the other key demand of the Fight for $15, union rights, remains elusive because of structural obstacles to formal unionization under federal law.
The survey itself, as a project of community-driven research, was a galvanizing exercise in democracy, Robinson says: “One of the things we were also doing while we were doing this outreach was educating people and saying, do you know that just across the border in Minneapolis workers are already getting raises?” Then they started thinking about their own city: “a lot of people were really inspired to hear that that is something that workers can win when we get together and fight.”
The Twin Cities might soon mark twin victory notches for the Midwest Fight for 15. But changes in workers’ outlook have already emerged. They realize now they don’t need to wait for “recovery” or politicians’ noblesse oblige: By organizing a movement for economic fairness, workers have the power to give themselves a raise, on demand.