The Fight for 15’s Long, Winding, and Brandeisian Road

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New Yorkers rally for a $15 minimum wage in March 2015. 

When the House voted today along straight party lines to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, it not only marked a milestone in the battle to create (and in some cases, restore) a more vibrant and egalitarian economy. It also illustrated the geographic and Brandeisian course of progressive reform within both the Democratic Party and the United States.

Louis Brandeis famously termed the states “laboratories of democracy”—the places where progressive policies could be tried out and perfected before going national. Today, however, it’s really cities that have become Brandeis’s labs. Disproportionately home to minorities, immigrants, and millennials (who are the leftmost generation in modern American history), it’s the cities where progressive ideas spring up, take root, and become law. 

Such is certainly the case with the $15 minimum wage. The Fight for 15 began with a job action of a couple hundred fast food workers in New York City in November of 2012, demonstrating under the banner of $15 and a Union. The campaign was conceived and organized by New York Communities for Change (a successor group to New York ACORN) in conjunction with the Service Employees International Union. At the time, New York Communities for Change director Jon Kest was mortally ill with cancer (he died barely a week after the first demonstration); to the extent that the campaign had a founder, it was Kest.

Backed by SEIU, which deployed a substantial number of organizers in a number of cities, demonstrations soon spread to most major metropolises. In 2014, the campaign registered its first victory in the small, working-class Seattle suburb of Sea-Tac, home to Seattle’s airport and the several thousand largely immigrant, entirely non-union workers employed as cooks, servers, janitors and maintenance workers for the airport’s various franchises. (I chronicled the Seattle battle in the Fall 2014 issue of the Prospect.) In an attempt to pressure the airport (and the power behind it, Alaska Airlines) to enable those workers to unionize, Washington state SEIU leader David Rolf said his union would put a measure on the Sea-Tac ballot that would immediate raise the minimum wage there to $15—with no phrase-in period—unless the airport recognized the workers’ bid for a union. The airport said no, the measure was placed before Sea-Tac voters, and it won—the first actual victory for the $15 wage campaign.

Coincidentally, in Seattle—the far larger city abutting Sea-Tac—a mayoral campaign was then underway, and SEIU challenged the mayoral candidates to back a $15 minimum wage in Seattle proper. Ed Murray, the candidate whom SEIU backed, endorsed the wage hike, and when he was elected, he formed a commission of business and labor leaders to structure a mutually acceptable phase-in and present the result to the city council, which passed the measure, making Seattle the first city of any size to adopt the $15 standard.

While demonstrations continued in cities throughout the country, it was chiefly in New York and California that the next wave of victories came. Not only were they the two largest progressive states in the nation, but they were also home to more than half of SEIU’s nearly two million members and, accordingly, the states where SEIU wielded the most political clout. San Francisco became the second big city to adopt the phased-in $15 wage, with Los Angeles following. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo established a wage board for the fast-food industry, which decreed a $15 wage for the city’s fast-food workers. Shortly thereafter, and almost simultaneously, both California and New York State enacted the wage for all their workers statewide. 

Cities elsewhere were following suit: In 2014, Chicago raised its minimum to a phased-in $13. A number of blue cities in red states also endeavored to raise their wages, only to see Republican state legislatures in Alabama, Texas, Florida, and other states pass laws that took that power away from them, notwithstanding Republicans’ ostensible commitment to local control. 

Particularly in the five years following the campaign’s 2012 kick-off, SEIU was the driving force behind the movement’s success. The campaign was not without some controversy within the union, since it had been initially conceived as an effort not just to raise wages but also unionize the huge workforce employed in the fast food industry. Early on, it became clear that while the union could amass enough political and moral clout to persuade liberal city councils and state legislatures to enact wage hikes, unionizing those low-wage workers wasn’t going to happen. It’s federal law that governs collective bargaining, and the National Labor Relations Act had long become so useless in protecting workers’ right to unionize that all efforts to use it, or go around or through it, to organize those workers were falling flat. (As well, the diffusion of the fast-food workforce over thousands of outlets, each employing only a relative handful of workers, made conventional organizing prohibitively expensive and nearly impossible.) In a campaign on which SEIU was spending many millions of dollars every year, the Fight for 15 had failed to unionize a single worker. 

Like the dog that caught the car, though, SEIU had been so successful in its fights to raise the wage that the campaign, however costly, couldn’t be easily dropped or even cut back. It is greatly to SEIU President Mary Kay Henry’s credit that the union persisted in backing it despite some internal opposition. And to her credit, as well, that the Democrats made the $15 minimum wage a plank in their 2016 national party platform.

At a certain point—perhaps 2016, when California and New York had already adopted the standard, Bernie Sanders was campaigning on it, and the Democrats put it in their platform—the Fight for 15 morphed from a campaign of the Democratic left to simply a baseline Democratic demand. Today, seven states (California, New York, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Connecticut) and the District of Columbia have enacted laws phasing in the $15 minimum, and some major employers of low-wage workers, such as Amazon and Target, have bowed to pressure to raise their minimum to that level as well. 

The near unanimity of the House Democrats in today’s vote (only six Democrats voted no) reflects not just the party’s leftward turn on economics, but also the concentration of the party’s base and, therefore, elected officials in America’s cities—those Brandeisian nodes that not only are home to the nation’s new left but also to higher costs of living and, therefore, a need for higher wages. Conversely, the Democrats most hesitant about the legislation (led by Alabama’s Terri Sewell) came from more rural and Southern districts. (The five states that have no minimum wage laws of their own—workers there are paid the federal level—are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee: that is, the states where the legacy of slavery most persists.) 

The progression of the Fight for 15 from a left-wing community organization and a left-wing union to leftwing cities to left-wing states to the Democratic mainstream is representative of the broader transformation of the Democratic Party in recent years, and going forward. Concentrated in the nation’s metropolises, the Democratic base is a force pushing the entire party leftwards. In urban centers, it is beginning to elected members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. More such will follow. 

Pushing the entire nation leftwards, of course, poses a greater challenge. The Senate, which represents acreage rather than people, won’t even consider the bill the House passed today so long as it’s under Republican rule. As Brandeis might have noted, the Democrats have the cities but they need more states.

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