When Raising the Minimum Wage is a Bad Thing

Stephanie Luce and Jen Kern

Our side must uphold the fight for a $15 minimum wage and must reject any increase that is, as it inevitably would be under Donald Trump, paired with concessions. (Stephen L/ Flickr)

Right now, most pro­gres­sives and left­ists appear to be in resis­tance mode against Don­ald Trump and his admin­is­tra­tion. If his ear­ly moves are any indi­ca­tion, that’s exact­ly where they may stay. But pol­i­tics is not a fixed mark, and — while we are cau­tious about mak­ing pre­dic­tions in this utter­ly unpre­dictable polit­i­cal moment — one issue could emerge to court com­pro­mise: the min­i­mum wage.

We want eco­nom­ic progress, and it will be tempt­ing to look for open­ings in the new admin­is­tra­tion where we could push for gains for work­ers. We have the momen­tum of a move­ment behind us and pub­lic sup­port remains high for rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. Hav­ing run on a nox­ious­ly racist, false eco­nom­ic pop­ulism, Trump may need to deliv­er some­thing to his work­ing-class vot­ers. A $10 wage might seem just the ticket.

We are sym­pa­thet­ic to the idea that progress” might be made here. But we have a clear mes­sage to our allies in this fight: Our side must uphold the fight for a $15 min­i­mum wage and must reject any increase that is, as it inevitably would be under Trump, paired with concessions.

Pol­i­tics is always about com­pro­mise, of course. But in this moment, we must active­ly resist two kinds of con­ces­sions in particular.

First, we can­not accept short-term gains in the form of a high­er wage if they mean con­ces­sions that under­mine our abil­i­ty to orga­nize over the long haul. Such con­ces­sions could include the abil­i­ty to form unions, engage in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, strike and protest. For exam­ple, a min­i­mum wage increase that comes along­side cuts to the Depart­ment of Labor’s inspec­tion staff would be a major set­back. A min­i­mum wage increase that comes at the price of right-to-work” pro­vi­sions would be disastrous.

The min­i­mum wage is a valu­able tool for rais­ing the incomes of mil­lions of work­ers, but it los­es much of its val­ue if work­er orga­ni­za­tions and move­ments are too weak to enforce the law. It doesn’t help peo­ple with­out jobs and only min­i­mal­ly helps those with few hours of work. Most impor­tant­ly, min­i­mum wages have the great­est impact when work­ers have unions to pro­tect their jobs and help them move up to high­er paid positions.

Sec­ond, we must be wary of attempts to divide our move­ment. The first min­i­mum wage, which was passed in 1938, exclud­ed domes­tic work­ers and farm­work­ers — occu­pa­tions that were dom­i­nat­ed by African-Amer­i­can work­ers. Today, the fed­er­al law sets a much low­er min­i­mum wage for tipped work­ers — a prac­tice that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly hurts women and peo­ple of col­or. An increase to the min­i­mum wage must ben­e­fit every­one, includ­ing farm­work­ers and peo­ple who work for tips.

It’s also quite pos­si­ble that a high­er min­i­mum wage could be linked to con­ces­sions on poli­cies that impact unem­ployed work­ers, through cuts to unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and the safe­ty net. If we accept an increase to the min­i­mum wage on these terms, we will dri­ve a fur­ther wedge between the so-called deserv­ing” and non-deserv­ing” poor. Indeed, our abil­i­ty to win depends on whether this fight is an inclu­sive one. 

Of course, Trump may make no move to raise the min­i­mum wage. But to the extent that he puts for­ward any gains for work­ers — such as the Car­ri­er deal or putting a stop to bad trade agree­ments—the labor move­ment and its allies need to be pre­pared to respond.

Our job isn’t to find com­mon ground with Trump or to fig­ure out ways to work with a hos­tile admin­is­tra­tion that will put for­ward ter­ri­ble deals. Our job is to build orga­ni­za­tions and make our move­ments more powerful.

Momen­tum is on our side

In just four years, the move­ment to raise the min­i­mum wage has expe­ri­enced his­toric gains. Since Occu­py Wall Street and the first fast food strikes, more than 40 cities and coun­ties have set local min­i­mum wages, with 16 reach­ing $15 per hour — a fig­ure that was unimag­in­able five years ago. Twen­ty-nine states now have min­i­mum wages above the fed­er­al lev­el, 18 of which, along with Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are indexed to go up auto­mat­i­cal­ly with infla­tion. Two of those states, Cal­i­for­nia and New York, will reach $15 an hour. Ten of those states have or will elim­i­nate the sub-min­i­mum wage for tipped workers.

Fight for $15 has been influ­enced by its col­lab­o­ra­tion with Black Lives Mat­ter. In the recent nation­al strike for $15, orga­niz­ers made clear that they were fight­ing for $15 an hour, a union and an end to struc­tur­al racism. We must stick to those demands and keep our move­ment unit­ed in the local­ly-direct­ed, nation­al­ly-coor­di­nat­ed form that has helped us grow stronger thus far.

Giv­en that leg­is­la­tion is only as strong as the abil­i­ty of our orga­ni­za­tions to enforce it, it makes most sense to focus on leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries when and where we are strongest. When we are on the defen­sive, pass­ing leg­is­la­tion most­ly means mak­ing ter­ri­ble con­ces­sions that will only under­mine us in the long run. For that rea­son, this is not a leg­isla­tive moment at the fed­er­al lev­el. It is a move­ment moment. Mean­ing, we need to put resources into move­ment build­ing rather than attempt­ing to pass nation­al min­i­mum wage legislation.

Life will be very dif­fi­cult for work­ers and unions under Trump, but we can­not stop orga­niz­ing. The move­ment to raise wages has proven to be a tool for orga­niz­ing these broad­er move­ments and we should con­tin­ue to do just that, keep­ing in mind four key points.

First, Trump and his allies are polar­iz­ing forces. We should be okay with the polar­iza­tion. In a move­ment moment, we want to polar­ize, not find com­mon ground with our ene­mies. If this were a leg­isla­tive moment — if we were on the offense — we might ask, Who are the mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans? Who might sup­port our leg­is­la­tion?” This is not that moment. Although we have momen­tum on the min­i­mum wage, we are on the defen­sive, overall.

Sec­ond, we can build move­ments around com­mon pop­u­lar demands, such as rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. But this isn’t enough. His­to­ry shows that in times of social move­ment growth it is cru­cial to put for­ward rad­i­cal demands. The civ­il rights move­ment didn’t just demand the end of Jim Crow, or the right to vote; it demand­ed jobs for all, full equal­i­ty and free­dom. In the 1930s, large sec­tions of the labor move­ment called for the right to union­ize and a min­i­mum wage, but also work­er con­trol of the economy.

Third, we have to be clear that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty as a whole has not been a true ally on this issue or to labor more broad­ly. Some Democ­rats sup­port the $15 demand, but not all. Stick­ing with $15 helps us expose the split with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, call­ing out the cor­po­rate wing. We should push for Democ­rats to sup­port the $15 fed­er­al min­i­mum wage while we build orga­ni­za­tions that will be able to pass that wage at state and local lev­els. Those orga­ni­za­tions will be nec­es­sary to fight the attacks com­ing our way.

Fourth, on this issue, momen­tum is on our side. Poll after poll shows that vot­ers approve of rais­ing the min­i­mum wage. The issue con­tin­ues to win when on the bal­lot, even in red states. We should stay con­fi­dent and bold with our demand on the fed­er­al lev­el: A $15 min­i­mum wage indexed to infla­tion, with elim­i­na­tion of the sub-min­i­mum wage for tipped work­ers. No com­pro­mis­es. No concessions.

Short-term gains vs. long-term victories

It is worth not­ing that it is pre­cise­ly because of move­ments that we have cre­at­ed a huge gap between the cur­rent fed­er­al min­i­mum wage of $7.25 and the move­ment demand for $15 an hour. That means there is a mas­sive gap for co-opta­tion. Any­thing above $7.25 could be seen as a vic­to­ry. If Trump push­es to raise the wage to $9 or $10, Democ­rats would be in the awk­ward posi­tion of hav­ing to oppose it.

We don’t take this posi­tion light­ly, as we rec­og­nize that rais­ing the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage to $10 per hour would ben­e­fit mil­lions of work­ers. And we don’t take this posi­tion because there is some­thing mag­i­cal about the num­ber $15. But rais­ing the min­i­mum wage is only valu­able along­side move­ments that pro­tect and build work­ers’ rights more broadly.

The same log­ic applies to engag­ing with Trump on trade or infra­struc­ture. We might agree with Trump that we do not want new trade deals. And we might agree that more mon­ey should go into build­ing infra­struc­ture. But we must be loud and clear that our larg­er vision includes trade, but trade that is fair for work­ers and the envi­ron­ment. Our vision is inter­na­tion­al­ist, not nation­al­ist. Our vision includes build­ing infra­struc­ture, but infra­struc­ture that is envi­ron­men­tal­ly sus­tain­able and pro­vides a liv­ing wage and good, union jobs. We must main­tain a vision that doesn’t accept short-term gains that cut off our capac­i­ty to do long-term organizing.

In some of the most bru­tal author­i­tar­i­an regimes, labor unions have been the anchor of a broad work­ing-class move­ment for democ­ra­cy. Think South Africa, Brazil, South Korea. Our work­er move­ments, polit­i­cal move­ments and unions must be wary of co-opta­tion. We are not here for one-off gains for some of us. We are here to build broad­er move­ments for all of us. The min­i­mum wage is a tool for orga­niz­ing as much as it is a pol­i­cy out­come. The effort to raise the wage must pri­or­i­tize move­ment build­ing. The Fight for $15” is just one step in the far more impor­tant fight for democracy.

Stephanie Luce is a pro­fes­sor of labor stud­ies at the Joseph S. Mur­phy Insti­tute for Work­er Education/​CUNY. Jen Kern is the Nation­al Issue Cam­paigns Direc­tor for the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Party.
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