In November 2012, two hundred workers at Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, and other restaurants walked off the job in New York City demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage.
It was at that time “the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry.” The demand struck many onlookers as a stretch — it was more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. But workers and organizers were undaunted by the skepticism. At that first protest, between chants of “How can we survive on seven twenty-five,” KFC worker Pamela Waldron told the New York Times, “I have two kids under six, and I don’t earn enough to buy food for them.” Fifteen dollars was necessary, workers insisted, for a dignified and secure existence.
The movement born out of these early actions was called Fight for $15, spearheaded primarily by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In 2013, fast-food workers organized under this banner walked out in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Seattle, Flint, and Kansas City. Over the next few years, the movement expanded beyond fast-food to include other low-wage workers all over the country, including airport employees, caregivers, and workers at Walmart and Amazon.
Seattle was the first city to respond to public pressure from the movement, passing a measure in 2014 to gradually raise its city-wide minimum wage to $15. Other cities followed suit, among them Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, New York City, Washington, DC and the Twin Cities. The states of California, Massachusetts, and New York passed legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15. Dozens of other cities and states have since adopted lesser minimum wage increases, moved to action by the strikes, protests, and unrelenting activism of thousands of people like Pamela Waldron who have fought tooth and nail to better care for themselves and their families.
What had originally seemed an improbable demand has become a legitimate and popular one. Fight for $15 has hit the big time. The majority of Americans support it, and now it’s made its way to the nation’s capitol.
On Thursday, the Fight for $15 movement achieved a major victory: the House of Representatives passed the Raise the Wage Act. The legislation, introduced in Congress by Rep. Bobby Scott and Sen. Bernie Sanders, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025 and thereafter index the minimum wage to inflation. In Congress, the bill passed 231 to 199. Workers in the chamber greeted the result by chanting, “We work, we sweat, put $15 on our check!”
Only six Democrats voted against the bill, a telling departure for a party that has prevaricated on the demand. In 2016, party outsider Bernie Sanders made the demand for a $15 an hour federal minimum wage central to his presidential candidacy. His opponent, party favorite Hillary Clinton, proposed a raise to $12 instead. When pressed for her reasoning, she spoke the language of compromise and sought to manage expectations by saying, “Let’s not just do it for the sake of having a higher number out there, but let’s actually get behind a proposal that has a chance of succeeding” — a timidity on working-class issues characteristic of the party establishment.
The strong Democratic Party support for the Raise the Wage Act is evidence of a sea change, if not of hearts and minds then of perception of what the public wants and what’s necessary for politicians to protect their careers. There’s a catch, though: the Republican-controlled Senate is likely to vote this bill down, claiming it will hurt business and therefore the economy, an argument consistent with right-wing trickle-down economics.
Some moderate Democratic politicians would presumably be shaking in their boots at the thought of angering the corporate elite that bankroll their political careers, but they’re free to put on a show for voters in this instance because they know the bill won’t pass into law. There’s also the additional fact that the demand rose to popularity a decade before it would be fully realized under this bill. Adjusted for inflation, $15 in 2025 will be quite a bit less than it was ten years prior. Together, these reasons partially explain why even pro-corporate Democrats are — at least on paper — on board with the legislation.
The bill is not exactly on safe footing, but those politicians who truly believe in the principles that animate it should keep fighting. The National Employment Law Project estimates that so far the Fight for $15 movement has secured $68 billion in raises for 22 million low-wage workers nationwide. The Raise the Wage Act, which applies to all federal employees, would affect an additional 33 million workers, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. These raises represent the difference between extreme financial hardship and relative security for huge swaths of the population. Their transformative benefits would fall disproportionately to women and people of color, and lift millions out of poverty.
For their part, workers can be expected to take advantage of the press coverage and ramp up their efforts, even in the event of a legislative defeat. They can also be expected to apply pressure not just on the federal government, but on cities, states, and employers themselves.
On Friday, McDonald’s workers walked out in Chicago, Detroit, Durham, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, Orlando, San Jose, and St. Louis. “We’re celebrating the House vote today, but tomorrow, we’ll turn right back to the fight. Our eyes will be on the Senate and on President Trump. And they’ll be on McDonald’s as well,” said Fran Marion, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City. “We’re going to get McDonald’s to pay $15 — and we’re going to win $15 all across the country — the same way we’ve gotten cities, states, companies, and the US House to raise pay to $15, by coming together, speaking up, and going on strike.”
Since the demand for $15 first came on the scene on 2012, the level of worker organization and activism around wages has grown more intense with each passing year. With public opinion swinging in their favor and fights playing out on a national stage, proponents of raising the minimum wage are well-positioned politically. They shouldn’t back down. In fact, they should take stock of rising living costs and inflation and aim higher than $15.
And they shouldn’t lose sight of the second half of the movement’s slogan, which calls for “$15 and a union.” Without union protection, gains made in wages can be cut in other areas, like hours and benefits. A union can make sure that victories are not merely disguised concessions. In addition to continuing to pressure lawmakers and employers to raise the wage, unionizing is critical to making sure that the movement’s achievements are decisive and cumulative. That way they can form a solid foundation for future fights, with demands more politically ambitious than the bare minimum required to live.