By Michael Murphy
On April 15, protesters in New York City and across the United States engaged in a coordinated demonstration to highlight the problem of low wages for workers in the fast-food industry. This issue has resonated with workers who have seen their pay diverge in real terms from the cost of living. The “Fight for $15 on 4/15” protests brought workers together with allies in the community and organized labor in what has become a dynamic social movement. Yet the origins of this stark decline in purchasing power for workers can be found several decades ago. Why has this social movement for change emerged in recent years to place higher wages on the local and national political agenda?
In the forthcoming Spring 2015 issue of New Labor Forum, Murphy Institute Professor of Labor Studies Stephanie Luce explores the origins and influence of this movement. In her article, $15 per Hour or Bust: An Appraisal of the Higher Wages Movement, Professor Luce describes the way this movement has made the concept of a living wage resonate with workers and community members today.
The Fight for $15 campaign identified an issue that has struck a chord in an era of inequality and economic crisis. Critical of low federal and state minimum wage rates, the movement has emphasized the declining purchasing power of workers as a marker for understanding relative poverty in the United States. Building on the groundwork laid by Occupy Wall Street, which drew attention to the growing disparity in wealth in the United States, the higher wages movement has established connections between the largely non-union fast-food workers and new allies in community organizations and organized labor. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was willing to invest resources in this action even though it might not directly result in an increase in membership or collective bargaining agreements with employers.
Luce describes recent strikes and protests as well as significant changes in local government policy regarding wages as evidence of the effectiveness of this strategy. Cities such as Seattle and San Francisco raised their minimum wage rate to $15 an hour, while New York has scheduled an increase to $9 an hour with the hopes of implementing staged increases in the near future. Luce also connects public policy debates in the U.S. to international developments, such as the recent increase in minimum wages in China and the creation of new minimum wage laws in Germany.
Clearly, businesses recognize the higher wage movement as a formidable foe. Several large corporations, including GAP and Walmart, have voluntarily increased wages in an effort to preempt criticism and protest. At the same time, business groups and sympathetic politicians are concerned that a rising minimum wage would alter the “business climate” in the United States and ultimately lead to an increase in the unemployment rate as businesses are unable to afford the additional costs. Luce’s research confirms that an increase in the minimum wage has not resulted in a corresponding decline in hiring.
By assessing the recent history of the higher wages movement, Stephanie Luce raises several important questions for academics and activists to think about. What is the relationship between organized labor and new social movements addressing inequality? How can the state and unions play a role in improving wages and working conditions for service jobs often paying minimum wage? Finally, how can social movements affect change outside the institutional structures that have governed relations between employers and employees for decades? The story of the higher wages movement in 2015 provides hope that substantial change can come from popular protests that transcend organizational and jurisdictional boundaries to unite workers facing common circumstances in their working lives.
Michael Murphy is currently Visiting Associate Professor of Labor Studies at the Murphy Institute.