Here’s today’s $62 billion question: Does progressive social activism really work?
It wasn’t just that these workers wanted to more than double the federal minimum wage that made their cause seem quixotic. No matter how much anyone may have sympathized with them, one didn’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool cynic to wonder how some of the lowest-paid, most politically disenfranchised workers in America might be expected to take on corporate titans like McDonald’s and Walmart and their legions of lobbyists in Washington.
With Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and a billionaire just elected president, the future of the Fight for $15 might, at first glance, seem pretty grim, and yes, the federal minimum wage is stubbornly fixed at $7.25 an hour—just as it has been for the past seven years.
But as reports roll in of dozens, if not hundreds, of protesters being arrested today in cities from New York to Detroit to Chicago, it’s worth considering how far the Fight for $15 has come in four years.
An analysis released this week by the National Employment Law Project found that since the Fight for $15 began, low-wage workers have won a staggering $61.5 billion in annual raises—thanks in large part to minimum wage increases in big states like California and New York, as well as in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The cumulative raise thus far, in a relative handful of states and municipalities, is 10 times larger than the total raise workers received across all 50 states back when Congress approved a three-year hike in the federal minimum wage in 2007.
The momentum seems to keep going. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington all approved minimum wage increases in those states during the last election. Just as significant, the Fight for $15 movement has succeeded in making its rallying cry resonate across the country, transforming what seemed a pie-in-the-sky demand into a moral imperative, a cause that every American who thinks that no one who works 40 hours a week should live in poverty can get behind.
Does that include President-elect Donald Trump? While early in the campaign Trump notoriously said that wages in America were “too high,” by convention season last summer he appeared to have backpedaled—maybe even flip-flopped. Trump is on the record as saying the federal minimum wage “has to go up…to at least $10.” Whether the candidate who built his victory on the backs of working-class voters will take on the entrenched business interests of his party to hike the federal minimum wage remains to be seen—but as today’s nationwide protests suggest, the Fight for $15 continues.
“We won’t back down until we win an economy that works for all Americans, not just the wealthy few at the top,” Naquasia LeGrand, a McDonald’s worker from Albemarle, North Carolina, said in a statement from the organization. “Working moms like me are struggling all across the country and until politicians and corporations hear our voices, our Fight for $15 is going to keep on getting bigger, bolder and ever more relentless.”