By Helena Bla-Latchkey
Minimum wage struggle is something that most people can agree on. It is a populist class struggle. Not only do many workers have minimum wage jobs — most of us know somebody who does. We know that they don’t get paid less because they are somehow lesser. The inequity and tragedy of poverty is structural. Raising the minimum wage is something straightforward to ask for, and feasible to accomplish.
Many organizations and unions throughout the US are working with minimum wage workers to make a $15 an hour minimum wage a reality. Fast Food Forward has organized strikes throughout the country, demanding $15 per hour for fast food workers. Fight For 15 has helped organize throughout Chicago. Protest groups across the country gathered at Wal-Marts with the same straightforward slogan. 15 Now has been highly active in Seattle. All of these organizations are backed by unions, and focus on the unionization of workers, as well as the minimum wage struggle.
Predictably, fast food giants have responded to strikes by saying these are impossible demands that would only result in mass layoffs, despite the fact that these companies are highly profitable. The Employment Policies Institute, a restaurant industry lobbying front, stated that if minimum wages were to increase so much, they would simply recommend employees be replaced with Apple technology. McD’s has already installed thousands of iServers in Europe. If this system were implemented in the US, it’s estimated that McD’s could layoff at least 14,000 people immediately. Although this is a small fraction of McD’s workers, it is a disturbing direction to take and I shudder to imagine how it might progress. McD’s has often been the trend-setter of its industry, and it seems likely that if iServers are shown to be a viable alternative to hiring employees then Wendy’s, Jack in the Box and the rest may also jump on the iWagon.
The city of Seatac, a small suburb south of Seattle centered around the SeaTac International Airport with 27,000 residents, recently won a union-backed campaign known as Proposition 1, for a $15 an hour minimum wage. In November 2013, it passed by a margin of just 77 votes, directly benefiting about 1,600 workers. The measure also forces companies to give workers paid sick days, retain workers for at least 90 days after any change in ownership and promote part-time workers to full-time before hiring new workers. Washington already had the highest state minimum wage in the country, at $9.32 per hour; however, until this measure passed, one in six Seatac residents lived below the poverty line.
Local unions were integral in organizing Proposition 1, which only affects businesses which employ 30 or more non-managerial employees. An interesting exemption is that companies which hire union workers can continue to pay the previous minimum of $9.32. This gives big business a tough choice — hire union or give everybody a raise. SeaTac International found its own exemption which was settled in court. The airport is technically a division of the Port of Seattle. Judge Andrea Darvas ruled that its employees are therefore not considered Seatac workers, despite working in Seatac.
Hopefully, this may not be the case for long. Seattle has a strong campaign of its own to increase minimum wage to $15 per hour, which is not only backed by city council person Kshama Sawant, the first Socialist elected in Seattle for nearly 100 years — but also the mayor, Ed Murray. The excitement surrounding these campaigns however surely has little to do with the elected officials that endorse them. It is my impression that the momentum has largely been driven by profound need that is obvious and important to many. I talked to organizer Jess Spear who explained that 15 Now was formed initially by facilitating neighborhood groups. This allowed diverse people from unions, community groups and leftist organizations, as well as individuals, to come together and campaign. Jess pointed out that such a victory in a major metropolitan center would inspire demoralized working class people everywhere and that this could be the beginning of something much larger. She urged anybody able to come to Seattle on April 26th to attend the conference they are holding.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. For salaried workers, the minimum salary is $455 per week. Five southern states have no minimum wage laws and thus pay the federal amount. Several states including Arkansas, Minnesota and Wyoming have subminimum wage laws— stipulations allowing for exemptions to the federal minimum. Persons with disabilities, young people or employees of small local businesses may be paid as low as $4.25 an hour. Tipped employees can make as little as $2.13 an hour. Prisoner-workers are not eligible for minimum wage, and make as little as $0.23 an hour.
66% of minimum wage workers in the US are employed by large corporations. In a sample of some of the largest employers in the country (including Wal-Mart, Target, IBM, HP and General Electric), 92% were profitable this year and considered recovered from economic recession. Most minimum wage jobs are in service, food, leisure and hospitality — some of the fastest growing industries in our increasingly urban culture. In growing and profitable industries, the workers are seeing little of the fruits of their labor.
Historically, the federal government has generally stayed away from minimum wage. The US has had a minimum wage since 1938; however, it has only increased 22 times since then. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, the minimum wage held the most purchasing power in 1968, equivalent to approximately $10.55 currently. After that, it slowly declined during the 70s, then sharply during the 80s, before more or less plateauing to its present buying power.
Living wage is a difficult thing to calculate, since it relies on making assumptions based on needs and lifestyle, as well as highly variable factors such as location. That said, if we take into account not only inflation, but also increases in work output and average consumption, a wage equivalent to 1968 today would be in the range of $22 – $25 per hour. This does not take into increases in rent, no doubt the largest expense for most working class people.
States and cities are largely responsible for determining wages, and they vary wildly throughout the country. In California, minimum wage is currently $8.00 — set to increase to $9.00 on July 1 and $10.00 in 2016. This pittance is one of the higher state minimum wages in the US. If a person making the California minimum was paying 30% of the their income towards rent for a two bedroom apartment at fair market rate, they would have to work 130 hours a week. There are 168 hours in a week. Even if this labor were split between two people, this would necessitate both working eleven hour days, six days a week.
In 2012, minimum wage workers comprised 59% of our labor force. Most recipients of minimum wage are women. Over 66% of people receiving the sub-minimum wage of $2.13 per hour are women. However, two-thirds of mothers work to support their families, and about a third of mothers are sole breadwinners. The majority of these women are over the age of 20, and 40% are over 30, contrary to the common argument that minimum wage workers are all kids fresh out of high school. Proportional to women working, far more black and hispanic women receive minimum wage than other women. Poverty in general effects black and hispanic people dramatically more than other people.
Determining social class in the US is a controversial endeavor amongst sociologists. Statistics vary greatly between models, but the poor comprise around 12 – 40% of the US population, and the working class comprises 30-45%. All models seem to agree that the majority of people are below the middle class line. 22% of children live below the poverty line — $23,550 for a family of four. 45% of children live in low-income families. How many of these children will turn to military enlistment as their ticket out of poverty? How many will become slaves within the prison-industrial complex?
Certainly, fighting for an increase in minimum wages is important, but will never be enough to insure human dignity and end poverty. However, it is a step towards a dramatically better life for many people who, as it is, are understandably weary and in dire need of change. We need to help empower one another to take human rights into our own hands, by sharing information and aiding one another’s struggles, whether or not we are perfectly aligned on every ideological point. We need to take the shame and alienation out of poverty, viewing ourselves and one another not as victims in isolation — but participants in a struggle for a life we share together.