A movement for a $15 minimum wage that even some supporters considered a pipe dream is gaining momentum, giving renewed vigor to organized labor and hope to low-income workers.
"They used to think $15 was impossible. Now it's popping up everywhere," said Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15, a workers' movement backed by the Service Employees International Union.
The $15 campaigns "completely upped the ante," said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
"Inequality really got on the radar in a big way," she said. "The labor movement… got a shot in the arm from that, and has been building up ever since."
Fells said the movement's recent success had attracted more workers who now believe $15 is an achievable goal. "That's probably why the movement is starting to grow so rapidly," he said.
On Thursday, two days after the city of Los Angeles voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020, Fells led a group of more than 1,500 at McDonald's annual shareholder meeting in Oak Brook, Ill., to protest for higher pay and union representation.
Fells said protesters were blocked from the site where the meeting was being held, but that a dozen workers met with a trio of McDonald's executives — who would not identify themselves, Fells said — outside, presented them with 1.4 million signatures petitioning for a $15 hourly wage and the right to form a union. McDonald's did not respond to a request for comment.
Fells said the Fight for 15 wasn't a minimum wage campaign but a push to try to force billionaire fast food executives to share some of their largesse with the cooks, cashiers and other workers who toil in their restaurants, but the two causes have become inextricably intertwined.
Success in L.A.
Los Angeles is the most recent and largest municipality to implement a $15 minimum wage. In April, Seattle began the first step of a phase-in of a $15 minimum wage that will take place over the next several years, bringing the current minimum wage to $11.
At the beginning of this month, San Francisco embarked on a similar initiative, raising the minimum wage to $12.25, the first step towards a $15 hourly wage by 2018.
And in an opinion article in the New York Times earlier this month, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state would create a Wage Board to study raising the wages for fast-food workers, after his push to raise the state minimum wage failed to make it through the state legislature.
Milkman said a rising awareness of income inequality and the negative economic repercussions it can generate are making local minimum wage bills more appealing. "If you can get them on the ballot, people will vote for them… even in red states," she said. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour since 2009.
"For poor families, it'll be just so much easier for them to make ends meet," said Michael Reich, economics professor and director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. Reich estimated that the average minimum-wage Los Angeles worker, who he said was likely to be in her mid-30s and supporting a family, would get a raise of about $3,000 a year.
Economists say these pay raises have the power to change the lives of a majority of the lowest-income Americans.
New research from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute finds that the majority of working-age poor people without disabilities do work. "When you look at that group, you see that nearly two-thirds of them are working and more than 40 percent of them are working full-time," said Elise Gould, a senior economist with the group. "So there are full-time workers out there who can't lift their families out of poverty."
Gould said more than 50 percent of people living in the Los Angeles metro area earn less than what the group estimates living on a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle would take. "Raising the minimum wage to $15 would put a substantial dent in that number," she said.