Spreading a Minimum Wage Increase from Los Angeles to the Whole Country

Martha Sanchez

The fight in LA and around the country is about determining what kind of country we want to live in. (Fight For $15 / Facebook)

Our economy has long been out of balance. Workers’ efforts across the country create wealth, but the profits don’t get to the working people who produce them. Correcting that so that workers are paid enough to sustain their families and make ends meet, is not easy. It requires changing rules that unfairly favor the rich and are written by politicians beholden to the wealthy. That’s why the recent move by Los Angeles to raise the minimum wage to $15 is so meaningful. 

Conceived and fought for by workers and grassroots organizations, the $15 minimum wage is a people-powered victory that will improve the lives of Angelenos for generations. More importantly, this victory signals an irreversible change in the broader fight for a decent wage in cities around the country. It inspires hope that we can finally make work pay enough to live on. 

The brave families that fought for change include people like Sandra Arzu, a single mother who works for Health Care Agency at $9 per hour — barely enough to survive in Los Angeles. It is people like Sandra and their families who power the country’s second-largest city.

Just like Sandra, other mothers, brothers, sales representatives and servers around the country deserve the opportunity to sustain their families. Everyone who works hard should be able to make ends meet.

We came together in Los Angeles for our families, but also to join something bigger than us. We saw what was done in other cities — San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle have all raised their minimum wage recently — and we picked up on that momentum.

Through organizing and hard work, our communities stood together and demanded change. Organizations like Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, the Center for Popular Democracy, and our partners and allies brought workers to the forefront and helped make history.

The result speaks for itself: an increase in the minimum wage in yearly increments, reaching $15 by 2020 for large employers. Businesses with 25 or fewer employees will have more time, until 2021. A recent study with comparable figures shows that almost 800,000 people stand to benefit. That’s more than 40 percent of LA’s workforce. And there will be further increases to the minimum wage with rising consumer prices, meaning that minimum wage workers won’t fall further behind. It’s not hyperbole; this is a victory for generations of Angelenos to come.

In New York, there is a vibrant Fight for $15 movement that has already led to Gov. Andrew Cuomo taking initial steps in favor of an increase in wages for tipped workers. Organizers in Oregon and Washington, D.C. are gearing up to make minimum wage fights a big part of their agendas next year. Other cities looking at increases include Portland, Maine, Olympia; Tacoma, Washington; and Sacramento and Davis, California.

Here is some of what this could mean across the country. No one will get rich off a $15 minimum wage; it adds up to just over $31,000 per year for a full-time worker. But there will be enormous benefit for local economies and household budgets. Poverty will be reduced.

According to the National Employment Law Project, a full 42 percent of U.S. workers make less than $15 per hour. People of color are overrepresented in jobs paying less than $15 an hour, and female workers make up 54.7 percent of those making less than $15 per hour, even though they make up less than half of the overall U.S. workforce. African-American workers make up about are about 12 percent of the total workforce, but they account for 15 percent of the sub-$15-wage workforce. Latinos constitute 16.5 percent of the workforce, but account for almost 23 percent of workers making less than $15 per hour. Inequality is never acceptable, and a $15 minimum wage would mean enormous progress in fighting it.

Ultimately, the fight in LA and around the country is about determining what kind of country we want to live in. In LA, we did it, and we continue the fight across the country until everyone who works can make ends meet and have a say in their future. The future for the fight for $15, our households and children looks a little brighter thanks to the victory here. We can’t wait to see what our friends in other cities will do to take this fight further.

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Martha Sanchez is a member of ACCE, a partner of the Center for Popular Democracy.
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