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Mulling the latest minimum–wage machinations

May 11th, 2015  |  Lisa Milam

By Lisa Milam-Perez

“Raising pay raises us all,” declares the noble voice-over in Walmart’s latest TV ad. Have you seen it? It left me a little verklempt. The retail behemoth, so reflexively maligned in liberal circles, is raising pay for its hourly workers, and boasting about it.

There it is, folks: I’m callin’ it. This “Fight for $15” movement is a resounding success. What other explanation could there be for Walmart’s newest campaign? “Alt” labor’s PR blitz has fixed the public’s attention on the challenges facing low-wage workers and has fostered a sense of urgency, of moral imperative, over remedying their plight. The world’s largest retailer felt the heat, responded accordingly, and is making hay of it.

After Walmart raised its wages, TJ Maxx and Marshall’s quickly followed suit. Then in April, beleaguered “joint employer” McDonald’s Corp. said it would give a raise to workers at company-owned restaurants (i.e., a small fraction of the McDonald’s restaurant universe) to more than $10 an hour by 2016. Sure, we can wonder about motive (See that, NLRB—how few McDonald’s employees actually fall under corporate’s control? We’ve made our point!), but I’m still feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, so let’s not go there.

Of course, in concrete terms, the Fight for $15 is far from won. The world’s largest employer can boost its wages and its competitors can follow suit, but the majority of low-wage workers are still left behind. The most tangible solution is a sharp increase in the lagging federal minimum wage, currently a woeful $7.25 an hour. The Obama administration has doggedly pressed the matter of late, leading the charge in his 2013 State of the Union address and raising the rate to $10.10 for federal contract workers by executive fiat. Late last month, lawmakers proposed an audacious $12 an hour federal minimum wage by 2020—$110 billion in raises for affected U.S. workers—in the form of the Raise the Wage Act. No doubt their lofty ambitions were fueled by the Fight for $15 battle cry. Given the consistent failure over the years to move the needle in far more modest increments, though, their quest seems a Quixotic one.

Yet where Congress has lollygagged, the states have stepped in, a solid majority of which have minimum wages that exceed the federal rate. A number of those jurisdictions have raised their minimums still higher since 2013. In the 2014 election, voters handily approved increases in all five states where the minimum wage was on the ballot. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are taking novel approaches to boost workers’ wages even further: Connecticut is pondering legislation that would charge $1 an hour to private companies with at least 500 employees (in an alternate bill: 250 workers) for each worker who is paid $15 an hour or less. Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called upon the state’s labor commissioner to convene a wage board to enact a wage-hike for fast-food workers specifically. And city governments have begun to take action too, with still higher local wage floors in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago, among others.

Alas, with progress comes pushback, as Republican legislators maneuver with equal fervor to undo wage gains already won. In January, on the heels of a citizen-mandated minimum-wage jump, South Dakota passed a measure to exclude workers under age 18 from enjoying the newly enacted pay raise, and a similar initiative is currently afoot in Nebraska. Last week the Missouri Senate voted to bar municipalities in the state from enacting local wage hikes; such legislation has been floated in several other states as well. Bids to eliminate longstanding prevailing-wage laws, which typically apply to public construction and service contracts, are in play in more than a dozen states too. Living wage ordinances also face court challenges by private employers; last week, for example, an airport contractor urged the Ninth Circuit to strike down LA’s Living Wage Ordinance, enacted in 1997. Of course, at the federal level, the GOP continues to dig in its heels. Senate Republicans in 2014 blocked a minimum wage increase. And in the House? Suffice to say that John Boehner once pledged to kill himself before he’d vote for a minimum wage hike.

They’ve won the PR battle, the Fight for $15 folks. But on the political front, the wage war rages on.