Starting on the first of the year, almost one and a half million people in 13 states began taking home fatter paychecks. While the federal minimum wage languishes at $7.25 an hour, 21 states now have wages higher than that, with some boasting wages above $10 per hour. In some communities, that’s going to result in lifting workers out of poverty and making it easier for them to engage with their local economies. That, in turn, should stimulate more economic activity, a key necessity for economic recovery in a country still flailing with the aftermath of a recession.
Some of these states have voted in flat wage increases to reflect the fact that their wages are inadequate for workers to survive comfortably. Other wages are adjusting automatically to address cost of living increases, thanks to progressive wage legislation. In specific cities and regions like San Francisco County and SeaTac, individual measures have resulted in minimum wages even higher than those in the rest of the state. These measures are an illustration of the power of organizing work around fair pay and minimum wages in communities where the cost of living can be particularly high.
Of course, the minimum wage still doesn’t keep pace with inflation or worker productivity; it would be at over $20 now if that was the case. But these increases are a good step in the right direction, especially in the context of battles on the federal level over proposals to increase the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour or more — a move supported by the Democrats, but opposed by many Republicans and other conservatives. Despite the economic arguments in favor of a higher minimum wage, which include lifting millions of workers out of poverty, particularly people of color, who tend to disproportionately work in low-wage jobs, and stimulating local economies, conservatives are reluctant to support fair wage campaigns on the grounds they will negatively effect businesses.
This opposition is curious, given that conservative arguments for tax cuts have often included the argument that people with more money are more likely to spend it, thus stimulating local businesses. While payroll costs do indeed increase when the minimum wage increases, this can be offset by higher sales as a result of more workers having more money in their pockets.
The battle over fair wages in the United States has been taken to the streets by growing movements like the Can’t Survive on $7.25 campaigners pushing for better wages for fast food workers across the country. The fast food industry offers some of the lowest wages in the country, with many workers struggling to make a living on multiple low-wage jobs as a result of labor practices at companies like McDonald’s and Burger King. Other large chains like WalMart have also been targeted for unfair wages, with notable PR mistakes like inviting workers to contribute to a food drive…for the company’s own employees.
Will campaigners in the United States manage to successfully implement fair wages, relying on both economic and social arguments to persuade political operators to consider increasing wages across the board? Despite lobbying for living wages across the country for decades, they haven’t been successful, but recent years have marked a growing interest in the issue, and a push from a significant number of Americans. It might be time for a radical change in the wage structure of the United States.
Photo credit: 401(k) 2012