The Fight for $15 Is Poised to Claim Its First Statewide Victory

California lawmakers are considering a bill that will bump its minimum wage up to the movement’s gold standard by 2022.
(Photo: OFL Communications Department/Flickr)
Mar 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Workers in California will earn a minimum of $15 an hour come 2022 if state lawmakers pass a wage-increase bill based on a deal between labor groups and Gov. Jerry Brown. It would make the state the first to adopt the gold-standard wage that fast-food workers began to call for when a few hundred people in New York City walked off the job on Thanksgiving 2012.

“It’s clear to all of us that this would not have been expected a couple of years ago, even five years ago,” said Laura Huizar, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for progressive labor policies. Just three years ago, President Obama was backing a proposal to raise the federal wage to $10.10 an hour. Today, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support a nationwide $12 and $15 wage, respectively, as they campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. “Workers, through the Fight for 15 movement, have made the fight for higher wages a national priority,” Huizar added.

Brown, who as recently as last week spoke out against a statewide $15 minimum wage, called the compromise a “landmark deal” in a statement. Reuters reported that the deal gives Brown “the right to opt out if the economy faltered.”

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Unlike wage laws in other states and at the federal level, there is no subminimum in California. The state does not have a tipped wage and does not officially allow farmworkers to be paid piece rates for harvesting fruits and vegetables that amount to less than $10 an hour. While the $15 wage passed in Los Angeles last year would largely benefit service-industry employees such as fast-food and restaurant workers, a statewide wage hike will benefit those at the other end of the food chain who live in rural areas unlikely to follow the progressive policies of coastal cities.

Under the new deal, one in three Californians are expected to see their wages rise. (Based on inflation estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, $15 in 2016 dollars will lose $2 in spending power over the next six years.)

“The Fight for $15 has done a wonderful job of putting the plight of fast-food workers and income inequality on the front page of every newspaper in the United States,” said Doug Bloch, political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents more than 100,000 members in California and Nevada, many of whom are food-chain workers. “What most consumers don’t see is that behind fast-food workers there’s a whole chain of workers, mostly workers of color, who are touching those products, who also deserve $15 an hour.”

There’s a good chance that the lettuce on a Big Mac at McDonald’s, for example, comes from Taylor Farms, the largest producer of bagged salad greens in the country. Bagging lettuce is a good middle-class job for many Taylor workers, according to Bloch. But while many of the employees who process produce at the company’s Salinas, California, facilities are Teamsters, 900 workers at a facility near Tracy, California, do not have a union contract. It’s such workers on the other side of the food chain who would benefit the most, according to Bloch, if the wage hike passes.

The annual salary for someone working full-time (with no days taken off) at $15 an hour is $30,600, which is about $6,000 more than the federal poverty level for a family of four. Annual earnings at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, $14,790, are less than the federal poverty level for a household of two. Increasingly, individuals, not whole families, rely upon restaurant and service-industry jobs. As service jobs have replaced the higher-earning positions devoured by the Great Recession, the average fast-food worker has gone from a high-school kid to someone far older with many more responsibilities. According to a NELP study from 2014, the average fast-food worker is 29, and more than 26 percent have children.

Economists have found that, despite critics categorizing minimum wage increases as job killers, hiking pay does not lead to layoffs. A 2011 study of minimum wage increases in San Francisco and Santa Fe, New Mexico, found that jobs were not cut left and right following wage hikes. The same has been true in many other cities that have increased wages, and as University of California, Berkeley, economist Michael Reich wrote in a 2014 report on the impacts of wage hikes, “Rather than eliminating jobs, raising the minimum wage can reduce turnover and increase job stability,” with increased operating costs absorbed by both companies earning lower profits and consumers paying slightly higher prices. In San Francisco, for example, restaurant prices increased 2.8 percent three years after the city bumped the minimum wage from $6.75 to $8.50 in 2004.

While California is poised to be the first state to pass a $15 wage, others will likely follow. New York and New Jersey are considering boosting wages, and Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., said last week she wants a $15 hourly wage in the district by 2020. Nationwide, 42 percent of workers earn less than $15.

Although elected officials rather than California voters will determine the fate of the wage proposal, NELP’s Huizar still sees it as a “testament to the power of the ballot initiative process.” If a deal wasn’t reached between labor groups and Sacramento, there could have been two different wage-related initiatives on the November ballot in California—and there may still be in other states, according to Dave Regan, president of SEIU-UHW, the health care workers union behind the more aggressive of the two California ballot initiatives. The union’s Fairness Project is pursuing ballot initiatives for a $15 minimum wage in other states, including Maine.

“There are a lot of states where it’s still possible to qualify, and I think the Fairness Project is looking at those,” Regan told the International Business Times. “Hopefully the momentum will create opportunities.”