Notes on Kamp: Why You Should Care About Fight for $15
It doesn't matter what income bracket you're in – the living wage issue impacts everyone
Today, April 14, workers will go on strike throughout the country as part of the Fight for $15 movement. In the time that's passed since the previous nationwide strike (see "Local Workers Strike for $15," Nov. 10, 2015), significant victories in the struggle for a $15 minimum wage have been achieved.
In New York and California, statewide minimum wage hikes were enacted at the beginning of the month. Both laws incrementally increase the wage floor: California workers will see a $15 minimum wage in 2022. In New York, employers in New York City will be required to pay $15 an hour by 2019, but other areas will have more time (Long Island and Westchester County have until 2022; for the rest of the state, the deadline is still undetermined).
It's a big deal for the 60 million people living in the two states, and it demonstrates that a dramatic minimum wage increase isn't the pipe dream many people believed it was when the number 15 was first floated.
I have to admit that the victory makes me question my own skepticism about change happening here in Texas. However, I'll be shocked if a statewide minimum wage increase comes to Texas before a nationwide one is implemented.
It won't be because we don't need it. Austin won't be home to a particularly large group of striking workers today, but that's because Fight for $15 is less established here, and not because people don't need a living wage.
One of the workers who is striking in Austin today, Marcos Singleterry, who's worked at the McDonald's on Oltorf part time for three years, says that if he were making more (he currently makes $8.50 an hour), he'd probably "buy a little bit more groceries." Many of the workers I talked to were more concerned with how making more would improve a very basic quality of life. They just want a break from choosing between paying rent and eating.
Fight for $15 has thus far mostly focused on organizing fast-food workers – a strategic choice, given how many low-wage workers there are in that industry. There's often pushback because of this; detractors seem to believe that we don't need to pay the people we expect to serve us food much money, because those jobs are for high school students.
There are two misconceptions at play here. First, there are plenty of people working in fast food who are long past their teens and early 20s. Sammy Andrews, another worker who's striking in Austin, has worked at Church's Chicken for 10 years. He makes $8.90 an hour and receives no benefits. At 54 years old, he says, "I can barely go to the grocery store."
Secondly, even if only young people were working in fast food, that wouldn't be a justification for paying them less than a living wage. Teenagers who work in fast food – a demanding, unfun job – are there because they and their families need that income. Destiny Harris, a high school senior and member of Youth Rise Texas, advocated earlier this year for Austin's Fair Chance Hiring ordinance. Because her mother has a criminal history, it's difficult for her to find work. It falls on Harris to help support her family by working at Taco Bell.
I would like to see a higher minimum wage because I think everyone deserves to be able to have a decent quality of life, but I also think it would be good for those of us who are just barely middle class. A system that doesn't value the hard work of its lowest-paid workers doesn't value those of us in the middle, either. Instead, it encourages employers to pay as little as they can, knowing that the other options for workers aren't that great.
Although I have my doubts about whether Texas is going to join the list of states who choose to increase the minimum wage, only good can come from workers advocating for themselves. A higher statewide minimum wage is not the only victory that might be won. Austin has found many ways to increase the labor standards for a variety of its residents, even though it can't change the minimum wage citywide. Last year, City Council implemented a wage floor of $13 an hour for city employees. As they get ready to deliberate over the budget again this year, it's worth remembering that $13 isn't really a living wage in Austin.