At a Monday rally celebrating New York State’s new family-leave policy and its new law raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Andrew Cuomo indulged himself a bit. The governor licked off a few shots at Donald Trump and the bigotry that drives his campaign success, ridiculing Trump’s “beautiful,” xenophobic wall at the Mexican border. "If you think that is how you make America great again,” Cuomo hollered, “you don’t know what made America great in the first place." No one seemed more amused by Cuomo’s jokes more than Hillary Clinton, seated directly to his right. Later, in her remarks, she thanked Cuomo, adding, “I also really appreciate that what the governor did shows the way to getting an increased minimum wage at the federal level.”
Clinton has not joined opponent Bernie Sanders in calling for a $15 federal minimum wage. She has, however, pushed for a $12 federal wage, up from its current $7.25, and backs states and municipalities who can support a $15 wage or higher passing laws to do so. Other than this, Clinton and Sanders agree on virtually every platform issue. Even their tone is more similar than many would admit; what separates them is philosophy. But while their numbers don’t line up, the fight for a minimum wage represents one issue where Clinton’s pragmatism and Sanders’s idealism unite.
The minimum wage is an issue that primarily affects poor white people, who are discovering what it’s like to have conservatives denigrate them as if they were people of color. (It’s also a reminder that the definition of “whiteness” is always shifting.) Perhaps coincidentally, Monday marked 48 years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, where he’d traveled to campaign for the rights of 1,300 striking sanitation workers. In his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech one day before his murder, King connected economic injustice and mistreatment of workers to his fight against racial hatred, concepts that remain intertwined. Both class anxieties and cultural resentment can be byproducts of systemic racism. Trump’s regressive 2016 campaign, not to mention Republican politics dating back decades, has shown how the combination of the two can prove toxic.
With the Fight for $15 and other activist movements to raise the minimum wage, we’re seeing the opposite. This is the product of unity among working-class Americans, of all colors, that produced a progressive result. The movement to raise the minimum wage is exactly what the left should look like, according to activist Chantel Walker, who told MTV News she’s been involved in the minimum-wage fight for a little more than three years. “We’re supposed to be progressive, not regressive,” said the 34-year-old Walker, who works at a Papa John’s in Brooklyn. “[The movement] helps young people to understand that if you don’t fight for something, you’re not going to have anything. We want to have better living, working conditions, and a better way of life. We deserve a living wage.”
The minimum-wage movement has produced historic victories in both New York and California, where Governor Jerry Brown signed that state’s $15 minimum-wage bill in a Los Angeles ceremony around the same time Cuomo was speaking. The states’ plans to reach $15 an hour are different – California’s is more urgent and universal – but both are the first in the nation of their kind. And the minimum-wage activists aren't done.
Despite all that, Clinton didn’t sway from her position on the federal minimum wage in her remarks at Monday’s rally. Some may see that as a contradiction and a bit of political opportunism on her part, but it mattered to workers like Walker that Clinton was there -- and not just because Cuomo has endorsed her, or because the New York primary is two weeks away. Walker told MTV News “it was a great thing” that the Democratic presidential front-runner showed up, adding that “we as workers started the movement years ago, and we have a governor who’s behind the Fight for $15 … it did more than bring the wages up, it brought communities together, coworkers together, families together.” Clinton’s message to workers like her, she said, was, “Yes, you’re American people, you’re working, and we [politicians] want to see you have a better outlook.”
The arguably further-left message that Sanders has pushed over the past year is becoming more mainstream, as his success in this race has proven. But though Clinton is much better positioned to become the Democratic nominee, it was a relief to see her not pivoting to the center, unafraid to raise her voice on an issue as essential as worker rights even as she stuck to her practicality. She doesn’t have to pivot. Clinton may very well be positioned, right now, to annihilate Trump in the general election. There’s no need to adjust all that much. The minimum-wage fight is proof that the center has shifted left.
That doesn’t mean that the difference between her $12 minimum-wage proposal and Sanders’s $15 one is small. Yannet Lathrop, a researcher and policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project, told MTV News that one quarter of workers nationwide would benefit from a $12 minimum wage, while three dollars more per hour would help 42 percent. Nearly the same percentages of millennial workers stand to benefit from a raised minimum wage, Lathrop said.
So why not just go full Bernie on this? Clinton, in the past, has expressed worries that certain cities that aren’t major metropolises may not be able to sustain a nationwide $15 wage without significant job losses. “Asking low-margin businesses to make up for insane rents by paying their workers more could simply result in more unemployment, especially for less-educated and young adults who tend to rely on minimum wage jobs,” Jordan Weissman wrote in Slate last week. But even he admitted that that might not matter. After all, Fight for $15, an offshoot of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), began as an attempt to address the concerns of low-wage Brooklyn residents. That number was the middle ground between the Obama-endorsed but still-too-low $10 and the politically impossible $20. As unrealistic as it may have sounded years ago to politicians and media, $15 was the middle ground for activists. Now it’s becoming the standard.
I hear Clinton’s argument, but I still feel she should shoot higher and adopt Sanders’s position. It’s one of the few areas of remaining disagreement between the two where she should budge — not because he’s making a particularly good argument for it, but because the activists are. Similarly, I’d like to think that Sanders was spurred, at least in part, to adopt his platform on the minimum wage by young people like Walker who refused to accept the mere blessing of employment and pushed for more. Hopefully, they’ll inspire Clinton in the general election, too, should she move forward.