Fight for $15: A Troubling Pattern

Gabriel Pierre sees a concerning pattern in the new wage ordinances

A step forward, but inflation and delays will hamper gains. via Flickr

The fight for $15 scored a limited but noteworthy advance last week in New York, where Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Wage Board (an executive commission comprised of representatives from both capitalists and labor unions) coming out in favor of a three year phase-in to $15/hour (up from $8.75) for the state’s fast food workers. Because of the sectoral nature of the raise (applying only to employees of fast food chains with more than 30 locations), Cuomo is expected to approve the recommendation as an executive act.

This news comes on the heels of last week’s decision by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to raise the wage in the County’s jurisdiction (unincorporated towns) to $10.50 next year with incremental shifts to $15 in 2020, at which point it will be indexed to the Consumer Price Index to adjust for inflation. This plan is basically a mirror of what the City of Los Angeles approved earlier this year, and is one of several local-level initiatives raised since the movement came to prominence in Seattle and, to an extent, SeaTac. Massachusetts can be included in this list, with an agreement between state-employed SEIU home health care workers and Republican Governor Charlie Baker raising their pay rate to $15/hour by 2018.

A pattern is emerging out of this patchwork that should be concerning to living-wage campaigners, namely that of phase-in periods, caveats for “small business” (rather generously defined in many cases) and exclusions for certain categories of workers. To begin with, $15 itself is already decidedly not a living wage in large metropolitan areas1, with a hypothetical worker in L.A. still not able to eke out a decent standard of living even assuming no dependents, a forty-hour workweek and no paid days off. While some of the new minimum wage regulations are attached to cost of living adjustments, these don’t come into effect until after inflation has already eaten into the new wage’s value by the end of the phase-in period. Add to this the uncertainty of partial jurisdictions and confusion over who exactly is covered (what counts as ‘fast food’?.) While communists support any increase in the living standards of our class, no matter how partial it may be, clearly we have here a recipe for greater state bureaucracy, demoralization in the movement and continued poverty (not to mention wage theft) for low-wage workers.

This type of situation is amenable to the labor bureaucracy, the upper caste of the labor movement whose conditions of existence have more in common with the petty-bourgeoisie than with low-wage workers or rank-and-file trade unionists. The current labor leadership – with some honorable exceptions – has a clientelist outlook, using worker mobilizations as a pressure tactic and bargaining chip to gain limited concessions from Democratic politicians.

We need a serious strategic change of direction, one based on the long-term struggle to transform our labor movement. The low-wage workers themselves, with all the tenacity and energy they’ve shown so far, can take the lead here hand-in-hand with SEIU and UFCW militants. 15 Now! chapters could play a crucial role here. A 15 Now! that stands for a renewed labor movement, democratic and fighting for demands like the $15 minimum wage and a living wage jobs program (and its corollary, reducing the workweek with no loss in pay) would act as a galvanizing left-wing force in the low wage workers’ movement.