At 6 a.m. on the morning of April 15th, an estimated 100,000 workers in over 230 U.S. cities and college campuses, plus dozens of cities abroad, took part in the largest protest by low-wage workers in U.S. history. Protests began outside businesses including McDonald's, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, Walmart, and Target to demand a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The hashtag #FightFor15 was trending, and Tumblr and Vine were flooded with images of the protests.
The federal minimum wage is currently only $7.25, so raising it to $15 would more than double the income of millions of minimum wage workers. The movement, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), began with a series of strikes by fast food workers in New York back in 2012, but Fight for 15 protesters now also include adjunct professors (did you know they're often paid so little they have to go on food stamps?), home care and child care workers, and airport employees.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 1.532 million workers earn the federal minimum. Women make up 55% of minimum wage workers, and about a quarter of minimum wage workers have children. A study funded by the SEIU found that working families rely on $153 billion in public assistance every year as a result of their low wages.
Last year, Seattle was the first major U.S. city to raise the minimum wage to $15, and since they started gradually raising wages, the results have been promising. President Obama has been trying to get Congress to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10, but his efforts have failed despite the fact that 73% of Americans surveyed said they supported increasing the federal minimum wage in January, 2014.
Opponents of increasing the federal minimum wage often claim that raising wages won’t ultimately help workers because having to pay workers more would force them to cut jobs or increase prices. Many of these same arguments were made by industries fighting the implementation of any federal minimum wage back in 1938, and President Roosevelt’s suggestion to Americans at the time was, “Do not let any calamity-howling executive with an income of $1,000 a day, ...tell you...that a wage of $11 a week is going to have a disastrous effect on all American industry." (Spoiler alert: He was right.)
The International Franchise Association (IFA), which represents franchise owners, called the Fight for $15 protests “a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign designed to mislead the public and policymakers.” The IFA and other industry groups like the National Restaurant Association, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, and the National Retail Federation have a long history of actively lobbying against increases to the federal minimum wage, and evidenced by the fact that the federal minimum wage has stayed the same since 2009, these lobbying groups are powerful. But with all the national media attention the Fight for 15 movement is getting, corporations themselves are taking notice. And it looks like they’re finally feeling the heat.
In a recent column in the Chicago Tribune, McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook announced that McDonald's was planning a $1 hourly wage increase for select employees as an “initial step,” and wrote that he wants to transform McDonald's into a "modern, progressive burger company." Walmart has also already announced that they plan to raise wages for 500,000 workers, and Target CFO John Mulligan has said, "Our goal has been and will be, we're going to be competitive on wages, whatever that means, wherever that means."
Protesters remain hopeful that if they keep applying pressure, the dream of a $15 minimum wage could become a reality.