The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Liberals Finally Started Winning the Minimum Wage Fight

With momentum—and Bernie Sanders—on its side, the $15 minimum wage movement no longer seems so far-fetched.

by John Surico
Jul 23 2015, 11:40pm

Bernie Sanders goes on strike.

Like same-sex marriage and legal weed, the $15-an-hour minimum wage can be traced like dominoes across the American urban landscape. First, it was Seattle, which, last June, became the first major city to raise its minimum wage to $15, the highest in the country and more than double the federal standard of $7.25. Then came San Francisco, followed by Los Angeles this May. In Washington, DC, voters will consider a $15 minimum wage initiative on the ballot next year. Other cities have approved more modest increases: $13 in Chicago and Kansas City; $12.25 in Oakland; $11.50 in San Diego.

This week, the living wage movement knocked over another domino—and a big one at that: New York. On Wednesday, a panel appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo approved a $15-an-hour minimum wage for fast-food workers throughout the state. Like other similar measures in the US , the 70 percent wage increase will be implemented in annual bumps of $1.50 starting at the beginning of 2016, although the raise will come faster in New York City, due to the higher costs of living. The state's labor commissioner is expected to sign off on the change in the coming weeks.

The move is a major milestone for the fast-food worker movement known as "Fight for 15,"which got its start in New York City. Over the past three years, workers across the city—and the world—have demonstrated for higher wages, staging walkouts, strikes, and sit-ins with the help of labor unions. The movement found an ally in New York's progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, who included the wage hike in his left-wing 'Contract for America' proposal earlier this year. But without the power to set the city's wages, De Blasio was only able to voice his support for the wage hike—and responsibility ultimately fell to the state's more moderate Democratic governor to take action.

"When New York acts, the rest of the states follow," Cuomo said in Manhattan on Wednesday, citing the same-sex marriage bill that he pushed through the state legislature in 2011. "We've always been different, always been first, always been the most progressive."

While New York isn't necessarily first to implement the $15 minimum wage, the move is nevertheless significant—even if it only applies to fast-food workers. And the initiative is unprecedented, in that it applies to an entire state, not just a city inside of it.

"This is a fight that is being waged—and won—in many cities across the country," Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, the city's largest private-sector union, said in a statement. "As cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles enact a $15 minimum without any loss of business or shrinkage of the economy, we are confident other localities will hear low wage workers' voices and respond."

As the Fight for 15 movement scores victories in some of the nation's most progressive cities, it has dragged Democrats along with it. On the national stage, most Democratic pols still stop short of pushing such a big increase, settling at something closer to $12-per-hour, which is the rate President Obama has proposed for the federal minimum wage. Vice President Joe Biden stuck with that number on a visit to Southern California Wednesday, even as he applauded workers in the state for their efforts to raise the local minimum wage to $15.

But with the momentum in their favor, living wage proponents seem increasingly unlikely to show deference to more moderate Democratic leaders. And they've found a champion in 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Senator who on Wednesday introduced legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020. He also called on Obama to use his executive power to raise the hourly wage for federal contractors to $15.

"Today, we send a very loud and clear message to the United States Congress, to the president of the United States and to corporate America," Sanders told a crowd at a rally in DC. "In the richest country on the face of the earth, no one who works 40 hours a week should be living in poverty."

For the rest of the Democratic presidential field, the $15-an-hour minimum wage has become something of a litmus test. Presumptive frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who has yet to be fully embraced by organized labor, has not yet taken a position on the $15 raise, telling reporters in New Hampshire that she is behind "the local efforts that are going on that are making it possible for people working in certain localities to actually earn $15." The issue is almost guaranteed to come up during the party's primary debates, though, given that both Sanders and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley support the $15 standard.

Critics of a minimum wage hike have cited the high costs they could inflict upon small businesses and consumers—as detailed on this index card one Seattle diner has been leaving in lieu of a tip. Economists, for the most part, are split on the macroeconomic impacts of wage hikes, but most agree that they do reduce poverty.

"In general, the business community appreciates less rather than more government regulation," said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of Partnership for New York City, a major business organization whose members include Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase. "But I think the business community would be interested in a national increase to the minimum wage rather than a selected, targeted mandate. That's much more easier to sell, and creates a level playing field by capturing all businesses."

Calling wage stagnation "the issue" of our time, Wylde said that it made sense to apply New York's wage hike only to major chain restaurants, and predicted that other places would adopt wage hikes with similar restrictions. "The idea has always been not to hurt small businesses," she said. "This hike is targeted at larger national operations, not small start-ups. It may will be contagious, in terms of other states or cities who want to address the issue of wage stagnation."

Unsurprisingly, progressive activists have taken a far more strident view. "A generation of trickle down economics failed," Dan Cantor, national director for the Working Families Party, said in a statement to VICE. "The right way to put American families back on track is to make sure people are paid what they're worth. This is a movement that's only growing. Poverty wages are wrong."

"In a decade, we may look back and wonder what took so long."

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