Rev. William Barber: The Fight for a $15 Minimum Wage Is a Fight for Racial Justice

Democrats need to stop playing games and use their majorities to pass a $15 minimum wage right now—we can’t wait any longer.

Rev. William Barber

(Photo by Mike Brown/Getty Images)

Sixty-two million people in the United States make less than $15 an hour. And here’s the truth: the fight to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 is as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For Black people, it’s taken us 400 years to get to $7.25 an hour. We can’t wait any longer. People in Appalachia can’t wait any longer. Poor white people, brown people, we cannot wait any longer. And we won’t be silent anymore. 

The low-wage workers, tipped workers, people making less than $15 were already in a kind of depression before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. This is deadly. Hundreds of people are dying a day from poverty. Many of them are low-wage workers, tipped workers, people getting sick unnecessarily. Meanwhile, tens of millions of people still lack healthcare. 

When it comes to the $15 minimum wage, some politicians say they’re worried about small businesses. But we have to ask them, have they voted for universal healthcare for everybody? Because if they were really worried about small businesses and their costs, they would pass universal healthcare so that small businesses didn’t have to pay that money to cover their workers. If they were really worried about these businesses, they would pay people a living wage. Because guess what? The people with living wages are going to spend that money, and guess where they’re going to spend it? Back in the businesses. 

We cannot get this close and then fall back. We say to President Biden, to Democrats, to Republicans, to senators, to all of them: don’t turn your back on the $15 an hour minimum wage. Listen: 55% of poor, low-wealth people voted for this current ticket. That’s the mandate. The mandate is in the people who voted, not in the back slapping of senators and congresspeople. It’s the people who voted. And if we turn our backs now, it will hurt 62 million poor, low-wealth people who have literally kept this economy alive, who were the first to have to go to jobs, first to get infected, first to get sick, first to die. We cannot be the last to get relief and the last to get treated and paid properly. Protect us, respect us, and pay us. 

The truth of the matter is, there can be no domestic tranquility without the establishment of justice. That’s not what Rev. William Barber says — it’s what the Constitution says. The establishment of justice precedes domestic tranquility. And you can only hold domestic tranquility when you promote the general welfare of all people. 

Now, some argue that a $15 wage can’t pass through budget reconciliation. That’s nothing but an excuse. The fact of the matter is, when Republicans wanted to pass tax cuts and cut welfare, they used reconciliation. One time, when the parliamentarian gave them the wrong answer, they fired the parliamentarian, and got another parliamentarian to give them the right answer. So there’s one set of rules that apply for corporations, and there’s another set of rules when it comes to poor and low-wealth people. And that’s why we’re saying to Democrats: Don’t play the reconciliation game. It only takes a simple majority of 51 votes to overturn what the parliamentarian says. Let’s be real about this. People turned out to vote and it’s time for this to happen. 

Back during the New Deal, people said to President Roosevelt that the minimum wage was going to break to the country. You know what Roosevelt said to them? He said any business that doesn’t want to pay people the minimum wage does not belong in America. He said you don’t have a right to exist in this country if you don’t want to pay people a basic minimum wage. 

Fifty-seven years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. called for a $2 an hour minimum wage, which would be over $15 today. A few weeks ago, all the politicians were saying, let’s follow Dr. King. Let’s hear Dr. King’s message of love. Well you can’t hear the message of love without hearing the love and the justice connected together. To go backwards on this would be morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent and economically insane. 

We cannot address racial equity if we do not address the minimum wage of $15. There’s no such thing as racial equity when you just address police reform and prisons but you don’t address the issue of economic justice. And if you address economic justice, guess what? It helps Black people, and white people, and brown people, and Latino people. It helps everybody. Everybody in, nobody out. 

When people regardless of their race, their color, their creed, their sexuality, their disability, come together to fight to change the narrative, to demand, and to vote — this is the coalition that the aristocracy and the greedy always fear. My grandmama used to say, Work while it is day, because the night comes.” She got that out of the Bible. And Isaiah 10 says, Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights, who make women and children their prey.” 

We have to act like we have one shot on this. Tomorrow is not promised. It’s time to push, through every non-violent tool we have. We know that in every battle, if we fight, we win — and if we don’t fight, we can’t win. 

Let’s go forward together, not one step back. 

This piece is adapted from remarks made at a Poor People’s Campaign Moral Monday event on February 8

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Rev. Dr. William Barber II is President and Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

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