By Eric Timmons
Throughout the pandemic, millions of workers have shown up for their shifts every day to feed and care for the rest of us. Many of those workers are paid the minimum wage, or close to it. They deserve a big raise and following the Georgia elections, Democrats have a chance to give them one. As we put the awfulness of the Trump presidency behind us, we simply cannot let this opportunity to improve the lives of so many pass.
On Jan. 1, the minimum wage actually went up in 20 states and 32 cities and counties, in many cases to $15 an hour. But, unfortunately, Wisconsin is not part of that group. That’s because Republicans in the statehouse oppose raising the minimum wage. The last time the federal minimum increased was all the way back in 2009. Thanks to former Gov. Scott Walker and the preemption bill he signed into law in 2018, we also can’t raise the minimum wage at the city or county level in Wisconsin. This means the best bet for Wisconsin and 19 other states stuck with the poverty-level $7.25 an hour federal minimum is for Congress to act. Now, with control of the Senate, Democrats have the power to do so.
Democrats in the House did pass an increase to $15 in 2019 but the bill had no chance in the majority Republican Senate. Will conservative Democrats in the upper chamber now jump on board to support an increase? That remains to be seen. We must make sure that if they do, any increase in the minimum goes to $15 an hour relatively quickly and includes a schedule for cost of living increases for years to come, so that we don’t get stuck in this predicament again.
What about arguments against increasing the minimum?
One advantage of the patchwork of localities that have increased their minimum wage over the last decade, sometimes next door to places that have not, is we have lots of recent research to debunk conservative talking points.
Yannet Lathrop, an expert on wages at the National Employment Law Project, said numerous studies show no meaningful gain or loss of jobs when the minimum wage is raised. This means a higher minimum wage is not a job destroyer, as many conservatives argue, but we know it raises earnings for those who need it most, often to afford basic necessities. Lathrop was speaking on a recent episode of Doug Henwood’s Behind the News podcast.
Another frequent talking point is that not many people make the federal minimum wage, so what’s all the fuss about? This is thankfully true. Only about 2% of workers make $7.25 an hour (although that still represents a lot of people who need a raise). But many, many more make close to the minimum, and raising the floor significantly will increase their wages too. For example, the median wage for childcare workers was $11.65 an hour in 2019 (the lowest 10% earned less than $8.65 an hour). Those workers, predominantly women, definitely deserve a raise. Meanwhile, the median wage for cashiers at grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants was $10.78 in 2018, with the bottom 10% making less than $8.49 an hour. Those workers also deserve a raise. The numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Another popular misconception about minimum wage workers is that they’re all kids, working part-time summer jobs or paying their way through college. This is false. A large majority of minimum wage workers are aged over 20, and about one quarter are raising children, according to Lathrop. And those aged under 20 making the minimum wage often are helping to support their families, or need money to cover the crushing cost of college. They also deserve a raise.
Labor power and racial equity
After a year in which the nation was convulsed by protests against systemic racism, raising the minimum would represent a meaningful way to improve the lives of millions of Black and brown workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost one in three Black workers, 27% of Latinx workers, and 17% of other workers of color currently earn low wages and would benefit from a federal $15 minimum wage.
Black and brown workers have been leading the tremendously successful Fight for $15 movement across America for years, reshaping the debate around low wages and winning $68 billion for over 22 million workers. It’s high time for Congress to follow their lead, finishing the work they started by raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Doing so would be popular, both according to polling and based on the success of many ballot measures, even in conservative states like Florida, where voters backed an increase to $15 last November.
Beyond raising the minimum wage, labor power remains the key to racial equity. Rebuilding the union movement is a much heavier lift than raising the minimum wage, however, but it should be the goal of all who want to build a more just society. We’ve heard plenty about the racial wealth gap in recent months, but not enough about how to close it. Raising the minimum would help but a powerful union movement offers a much more substantial solution. Median household wealth for Black union families in 2018 was $22,106. The non-union median was $2,371. For Hispanic workers, the difference was even greater, at $33,696 for union households and $3,093 for non-union. Those numbers come from a report by the Center for American Progress. In 2021, let’s raise the minimum wage, and then fight for the right of all workers to organize for higher living standards.
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