By James Hoff
The time has come for a real living wage and US workers must not wait for congress to take action.
Throughout the nineteenth century American workers toiled upwards of twelve and fourteen hours each work day, frequently earning less than the 2012 equivalent of $33 (about $1.44) for an entire twelve hour shift. In response to these conditions workers made the demand for an eight hour workday their rallying cry, and rather than wait for the federal government to lead the way, they came together to build a strong movement that would eventually force their employers and local legislatures to act. In 1884 the Federation of Trade and Labor Unions, which would go on to become the American Federation of Labor, declared that as of May 1, 1886 the work day would be no more than eight hours. On that day, more than 300,000 workers across the country went out on strike, and in Chicago, the epicenter of the movement, 40,000 workers crowded the streets for what would become the first May Day marches. These strikes and the ones that followed led to an increasingly significant set of victories across different industries that eventually established the eight hour workday as common practice. Though the struggle was about money, it was also about dignity and quality of life. For those who fought for an eight hour day, the demand of “eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours leisure” was an assertion of their fundamental right to pursue a meaningful and rich life—not one crushed by incessant labor for the benefit of others.
As yet another May Day fast approaches, low wage workers in the US are growing increasingly restive and it is clear that a new workers’ movement is already underway. Faced with skyrocketing metropolitan rents and rapidly rising health care and education costs—not to mention a minimum wage that has lost more than 30% of its buying power since 1968—many full time workers and their families, including the many millions who live on or below the poverty line, are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. Though most of these struggling Americans work full time, sometimes at two or more different jobs, many still qualify for public assistance without which they and their families might go hungry or become homeless. While Wall Street profits and CEO salaries have continued to break new records, the number of full time workers who are living in poverty or homeless has also dramatically increased. As the New York Times succinctly put it in September, 2013: “In New York, having a job, or two, doesn’t mean having a home.”
In response to these extraordinary conditions there has been an increasingly militant struggle taking place just below the radar of the American media: a struggle that is already becoming one of the most important moments in American labor history in decades. From Seattle, which is in the throes of a city-wide minimum wage battle that stands to be a proving ground for future struggles, to San Francisco, Chicago, and New York—where Mayor Bill de Blasio is petitioning the state to allow the city to set its own minimum wage—workers and activists are coming together to demand fair compensation for their valuable labor. This time, however, unlike previous living wage campaigns, there is a real demand being made. Rather than the abstraction of a “livable wage” American workers are demanding “$15 now.”
Though President Obama has recently proposed a $10.10 federal minimum wage and signed an executive order increasing the minimum wage for all federal contractors, such meager palliatives, though a welcome start, are hardly sufficient. Here’s why: at forty hours a week, a worker earning Obama’s proposed minimum wage for fifty weeks a year would make only $20,200, a wage that, although well above the insanely out of touch federal poverty level, would be near impossible to live on in any major American metropolitan center. For instance, in New York City, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $2,666, or $31,992 a year. At the rate proposed by Obama, a full time worker making minimum wage would have to pay 79% of his or her gross wages for an apartment that was just half of the city average. In San Francisco, where rents are nearly three times the national average, a one bedroom apartment at half the average cost would be $17,382 a year, or 86% of said worker’s gross yearly income. Add to this the cost of a spouse or childcare and it’s not hard to see that minimum wage workers, even under Obama’s plan, would have little chance of getting by in most American cities; and you can forget about ever owning a home or going to college.
Even at $15 an hour most workers would hardly be living large. If the minimum wage were raised to just $15 an hour the average minimum wage worker, with two weeks unpaid vacation, would make exactly $30,000 per year before taxes. Combined, two adults each working full time could potentially earn an annual income of $60,000, slightly more than the pre-recession US median household income of $56,048. Such an increase, however, would lift tens of millions of Americans out of poverty and allow many millions more to work fewer hours, stay home with their children, or return to school, all without any significant increases in costs or loss of jobs.
It should be clear to anyone living in any major American city that Obama’s proposed federal minimum is not enough for most people to live on. It should also be evident that the federal government cannot and will not ever be the advanced guard for a real living wage. No, the path to a truly fair and dignified minimum wage for all workers, like the fight for an eight hour work day, is a battle that will have to be fought city by city and state by state. Such a movement is already underway, but to win it will require patience, intelligence, struggle, solidarity, and cooperation—virtues that the US working class still has in abundance.