Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Good Jobs Nation, discusses the effort to get a $15 minimum wage plank written into the Democratic Party platform.
As members of the Democratic Party platform committee entered the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington Wednesday, they were greeted by dozens of low-wage workers demanding that the committee write support of a $15 minimum wage into the platform.
What happened next is a testament to how fast the politics around the “fight for $15” have changed in the past two years. As a few of the protesting workers, wearing blue shirts with the word “strike” emblazoned on the front, managed to commandeer a row of seats inside the platform committee hearing, Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser was speaking. When she mentioned that she and the City Council had just unanimously agreed to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by the year 2020, the workers erupted in cheers.
The platform committee members could not at that point dismiss the chants of “$15 and a union” as the outlandish demands of fringe agitators. From San Francisco to New York and now the nation’s capital, a $15 minimum wage is now becoming the political baseline.
In an interview with OurFuture.org, Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Good Jobs Nation, pointed out that two years ago President Obama made waves by pushing for a $10.10 an hour minimum wage, a call that was rejected by a Republican Congress but was later implemented for workers under federal contracts by executive order. “Two years later, dozens of strikes later, $10.10 is old news. Fifteen dollars is now the norm. It is a testament to the power of the people; it is a testament to workers sacrificing and hitting the picket lines to protest to win the American dream.”
Even in the city of Washington, where the Democratic Party holds a virtual monopoly on local politics, a $15 minimum wage was not an easy sell. The city’s Chamber of Commerce and restaurant association fought it fiercely, and it was only under the threat of a movement to have the wage imposed by referendum – driven by what was shaping up to be a highly successful petition drive to get both the $15 minimum and the elimination of the lower tipped minimum wage for restaurant workers onto the ballot – did the council and the mayor agree to unite behind the movement.
The casualties in the compromise were the restaurant workers, who will see a raise in the tipped minimum wage – the base that employers must pay before tips – from $2.13 an hour to $5 an hour. Employers, however, are also obligated to pay the difference between what an employee makes in tips and the full minimum wage if tips don’t bring the worker’s income to that threshold.
But there is no mistaking where the momentum is, and the only question is whether the Democratic Party will work to get in front of the parade. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of course, is already there, and as a presidential candidate famously challenged candidate Hillary Clinton at the CNN New York presidential debate for trying to in effect stand on both sides of the issue, saying she supported New York state’s gradual move to a $15 wage but actually campaigning to raise it to only $12 an hour. As she finally admitted at that debate, “I want to get something done. And I think setting the goal to get to $12 is the way to go.”
But the reality that low-wage workers face, including workers who work for federal contractors, is that they can’t afford a one-bedroom apartment in the city at $10.10 an hour or even $12 an hour – the National Low-Income Housing Coalition found that to afford a “modest” one-bedroom apartment in the city a worker would have to earn nearly $27 an hour.
That’s how Charles Gladden could have a full-time job at the U.S. Senate cafeteria, working for a food service conglomerate under contract with the U.S. government, and still end up homeless. “I slept outside a Metro station near the White House for years,” he said Wednesday outside the Omni hotel. That’s when Good Jobs Nation and other labor activists organized ultimately successful protests against the Senate cafeteria contractor. “Because I went on strike, I now have a roof over my head,” he said. “But I still make so little that I have to use Section 8 [housing subsidies] to pay the rent. Nobody who works full-time – especially on a U.S. government contract – should live in poverty and be dependent on public aid.”
The rejoinder to Hillary Clinton’s “I want to get something done” is for organized people to change what is politically possible. The Fight for $15 movement is now doing just that, and we are now highly likely to see the effects when the platform committee realizes that it must embrace the struggle for “$15 and a union” to be on the right side of history and the right side of politics.