"We're a movement now," fast-food worker Latoya Caldwell said Wednesday of the effort by employees in her industry to raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour. That movement's latest action was a one-day strike that took place in 150 cities across the country on Thursday. It included acts of civil disobedience that activists said led to more than 500 arrests (including that of Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore).
New York. Detroit. Kansas City. Chicago. Los Angeles. Little Rock. Atlanta. Boston. Charleston. Hartford. Miami. Philadelphia... All day long there was a sense of electricity in the air as reports came in from one city after another.
The fast-food workers' issue, a higher minimum wage, is one most Americans understand. It is a cause, and a source of political energy, that Democrats would be wise to embrace. With the midterm elections only two months away, the Democratic Party's prospects seem doubtful. Experts give Democrats little chance of retaking the House, and they are in grave danger of losing the Senate.
The party needs a spark, a fire, a source of inspiration. It may find those things in an embrace of the minimum wage.
The cause certainly appeals to the electorate. Two-thirds of voters in a recent poll supported an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10, while 43 percent wanted it raised even further.
What's more, Americans understand that ours is an unequal economy, one that is rigged against them. In a poll released this week, for example, 54 percent of Americans agreed that "the widening income gap between the wealthy and everyone else is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity for a better standard of living."
In polls taken earlier this year, 55 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me," while 67 percent believed that the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing and 59 percent agreed that the American dream has become impossible for most people to achieve. (See PopulistMajority.org for details and additional polling data.)
Voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly passed an increase in that state's minimum wage in 2012, even as they re-elected Republican Chris Christie to a second term as governor. Christie was declared a "national contender" after receiving 60 percent of the vote. By that logic, the minimum wage is a contender, too, since that measure passed in New Jersey by a virtually identical margin. (And there's been no "bridge scandal" for the minimum wage.)
People intuitively understand that the minimum wage doesn't just affect workers at the bottom of the pay scale, but also addresses deeper and broader issues of fairness and economic growth. This issue offers candidates a unique opportunity to crystallize voters' reasonable but often amorphous concerns around a specific, and quite concrete, government action.
And the idea is based on sound economic principles. Consider: If we increased the minimum wage to $10.10, as Democrats have proposed, that would barely return it to what it would have been had it kept pace with inflation over the last 45 years.
Our minimum wage is well below that of other developed nations, and would still lag behind many of them at $10.10. (Source: International Labor Organization)
If the minimum wage had kept pace with increases in productivity since 1968, it would be $21.72. Instead, corporations and wealthy individuals have kept those gains for themselves. (Source: John Schmitt, CEPR)
During the decades that the minimum wage kept with productivity, we experienced an average of 4 percent annual GDP growth and 4 percent unemployment. (Source: Baker and Kimball, CEPR)
There is absolutely no merit to conservative arguments against increasing the minimum wage. To underscore that fact, a new study by Daniel Kuehn for the Economic Policy Institute shows that economic research that purports to show otherwise is methodologically flawed.
The minimum wage debate is yet another opportunity to point out that Republicans don't understand the economy and are out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans.
A matter of fairness.
The research may be sophisticated, but the underlying principle is a simple one: fairness. Working people's income has stagnated, and the minimum wage has fallen behind, but corporations are doing better than ever. Corporate profits are at or near record highs, and most minimum wage workers are employed by large corporations.
Low wages in the fast-food industry (as well as in corporations such as Walmart) force workers onto public assistance programs. That means taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing the profits of these corporations, while at the same time tacitly encouraging them to underpay their employees.
(The last two citations are from the National Employment Law Project.)
A higher minimum wage works for everyone.
When our leaders support minimum-wage workers, they're representing a cross-section of the population. Although conservatives like to claim that most minimum-wage employees are teenagers, less than 16 percent of those who would be affected by minimum-wage proposals are teens. An analysis by the National Women's Law Center shows that more than 92 percent of the workers who would be affected by an increased minimum wage are adults.
Many of them are parents. More than 7 million children -- nearly one out of every 10 kids in the United States -- have parents whose income would go up under a new minimum wage. When you count the parents whose wages would be indirectly affected, that rises to more than 11 million (or roughly one in six) children whose households would benefit from the increase.
What's more, most minimum-wage workers are women. With gender issues breaking in Democrats' favor, that's something Democratic politicians should be discussing.
An increase in the minimum wage helps most hourly workers -- by creating more demand for goods and services, which means more jobs. That's why labor leaders like the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka support an increase in the minimum wage, even though their own rank and file earn above the minimum-wage level. (Trumka explained his thinking on this subject in our recent radio interview with him.)
A higher minimum wage helps most Americans, either directly or indirectly -- and voters understand that.
Picking up on a theme.
Democrats are beginning to understand the power of this issue. With encouragement from labor activists and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, President Obama issued an executive order requiring all Federal contractors to pay their workers at least $10.10 per hour. (For a discussion of that effort, see our video interview with CPC co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison and labor activist Joseph Geevarghese.)
As Obama said recently, "All across the country right now there's a national movement ... made up of fast-food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity. There is no denying a simple truth. America deserves a raise."
Senate Dems are also reportedly picking up on this theme. The Huffington Post reported this week that "Democrats may hold a campaign-season Senate vote as soon as next week on their effort to boost the federal minimum wage."
That would be a smart move. It's politically savvy to remind voters of Republican intransigence on this issue as often as possible.
Voters are disillusioned. This year is increasingly looking like it could be a replay of the last off-year election, in 2010, when core Democratic constituencies stayed home and the party suffered crushing losses.
There are only a handful of issues that can energize that base, especially this late in the election season, and the minimum wage may be the most powerful of them all. It's an issue that directly affects many members of the base. It also speaks to Democratic voters' core values of fairness, equality of opportunity, and economic growth.
What's more, Thursday's fast-food strike shows that this issue carries some excitement with it. That quality is in short supply this election season. "We're a movement now," says Latoya Caldwell. The minimum wage may be Democrats' last, best chance to say the same in November.