Bruised after a crushing defeat in November, Democrats are uniting under a cause they believe could pay off in 2018: the $15 federal minimum wage. On Thursday, Senate Democrats introduced legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, reflecting local laws that have raised the minimum wage in 19 states earlier this year.
The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since taking effect in July 2009, an eight-year stagnation that evinces the broader trend of stalled wages across the U.S. economy.
The Raise the Wage Act would be the biggest federal minimum wage increase in history, and it would additionally peg future minimum wage increases to inflation. The bill would also eliminate the tipped minimum wage, the separate minimum standard of $2.13 an hour that is paid to workers, like those in restaurants or bars, who earn at least $30 a month in tips.
Though the legislation has virtually no chance of getting through a GOP-controlled Congress and White House, it marks a sharp turn to the left for Democratic economic policies. It also reflects the lasting impact of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ upstart 2016 campaign for the presidency, and the activism of groups like the nationwide Fight for $15 movement.
The Raise the Wage Act is sponsored in the Senate by Sanders and Sen. Patty Murray, and in the House by Reps. Bobby Scott and Keith Ellison. Critically, it has the support of major center-left Democratic players like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In 2015, when similar legislation was introduced, it had the support of a half-dozen Democrats; today, that number is 31 Democrats.
“Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage today is worth less than it was 50 years ago,” said Sanders at a Thursday press conference. “If you want to know why people all over this country are anger, bitter, disenchanted with government… they are asking why it is the people on top who are doing fantastically well, and yet their standard of living is going down.”
The popular momentum for an increase in a minimum wage has been building for some time now. Earlier this year, millions of workers across nineteen states — under both Democratic and Republican control — got a minimum wage increase at the beginning of the year. Another 19 states, however, still stick by the existing federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Policy advocates on the left and in the center have largely agreed that the U.S. has needed a minimum wage hike for a while now, although they’ve disagreed on the size of such an increase. Economists Paul Wolfson and Dale Belman, two of the most respected authorities on the effect of minimum wage policies, wrote in an award-winning 2014 book that “modest minimum wage increases raise wages for the working poor without substantially affecting employment or work hours, providing solid benefits with small costs.”
Previously, the more center-left wing of the Democratic Party advocated for a federal minimum wage increase to $12 an hour.
Backers of $12 an hour (instead of $15) included Hillary Clinton, and Senators Cory Booker, Chuck Schumer, and others. Schumer and Booker, perhaps recognizing the increasing popular support for a $15 minimum wage among the Democratic base, have changed their tune on this and other economic issues since the 2016 election The Center for American Progress, the most important think tank in the Democratic Party, recently came out and endorsed a federal job guarantee program — a longtime progressive hobbyhorse.
Chuck Schumer, speaking after Bernie Sanders at the Thursday press conference introducing the Raise the Wage Act, said that Democrats were going to be “bold” and not “nibble around the edges” of economic policy. His remarks appeared to foreshadow how the Democrats might be talking about the Trump administration and Republican agenda going into 2018’s midterm elections.
“This president ran on a promise he’d stick up for the American worker. He tried to talk like a different type of Republican,” Schumer said. “But since he’s come into office, he has completely turned his back on the American worker.”